AUSTIN, Texas ― Days before a winter storm plunged Texas into a prolonged freeze, bursting water pipes and cutting off electricity, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) announced a new legislative priority: All publicly funded events in the state would have to play the national anthem.
Barring special sessions, the Texas legislature meets only once every two years for five months, so Patrick’s priorities can crowd out other goals. That the archconservative, who presides over the state Senate, thought this issue merited the legislature’s limited bandwidth in the midst of a pandemic and widespread unemployment tells you everything you need to know about him.
Over the last week, as state leaders like Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott (R) called for investigations into the lapses behind the catastrophic failures that left millions without power, the Star-Spangled Banner Protection Act probably seemed a little less urgent, even to Patrick. But his inane choice of priorities wasn’t unusual. And it helps to understand how things went so wrong in Texas in the first place.
The problem is simple: In a sunny state that rarely sees prolonged freezes, power companies didn’t invest much in precautions to deal with extremely cold weather or to fortify the system’s reserve capacity. Texas lawmakers did equally little to either incentivize or require the utilities to prepare for uncommon catastrophes like the one that hit the state last week.
That’s not to say Texas Republicans did nothing to address the problem. A similar, though less severe, winter storm caused widespread rolling blackouts in 2011. In response, then-state Sen. Glenn Hegar wrote a bill demanding a report to assess how Texas could ensure reliable electric service during extreme weather events. The law sailed through and the Public Utilities Commission of Texas wrote a report. But that’s about as far as it went.
Instead, Republicans, who have controlled every statewide office and both houses of the legislature since 2003, have prioritized social battles like Patrick’s national anthem crusade. In their zeal, they’ve often neglected ho-hum tasks like winterizing the energy grid, against the advice they themselves commissioned. That lack of interest is the backdrop against which some 4 million Texans lost power at the height of the crisis, while many more were left without drinkable water and dozens died.
In perhaps the most emblematic episode of Texas Republicans’ tendency to elevate phantom problems over real ones, legislators finished the 2017 session without taking action on a must-pass sunset bill to keep several state agencies from shutting down. (In Texas, the legislature must periodically vote to perpetuate most state agencies or they get abolished.) This happened not because legislators thought state agencies shouldn’t stay open, but because Patrick had a more urgent project: He wanted to pass a law forcing Texans to use the public restroom of the gender on their birth certificate.
Critics saw that measure as an attack on transgender people, many of whom don’t change their documents after transitioning because of the bureaucratic hurdles involved. Patrick contended that he was, in fact, targeting bathroom-switching sexual predators who, in his mind, could not be prosecuted hard enough under existing law.
His intransigence on the issue forced Abbott to call a special session of the legislature. The bathroom bill ultimately failed, and the sunset bill passed ― but only after lawmakers wasted time that could have been used to deal with problems whose existence can be verified.
“Texas has been in the hands of people who don’t believe in government in the first place,” former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro (D) said at a press conference last Friday. “It’s a crisis of leadership that has real consequences for families across the state.”
The annals of Texas legislation are filled with projects of questionable urgency that cut in line ahead of down-to-earth measures that might have done more to keep the lights on and the water running ― especially from the early Obama years to the 2018 midterm elections, when the Republican right enjoyed its strongest influence, said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.
“We just saw much less concern with overall governance issues and much more concern with red meat issues that appealed to the base, even if they were unlikely to have any real policy consequences,” Jones said. “The point was to signal to the base that you were pursuing the true Republican agenda.”
Some of these issues were the kind of innocuous legal tweaks that might crop up in any statehouse ― though in retrospect, winterizing vulnerable gas and water lines seems more important than criminalizing bestiality or making sure no one’s confused that teachers can say “Merry Christmas.”
Others were more politically contentious. A yearslong battle in the state legislature ended with a 2011 law requiring Texans to show a photo ID before casting a ballot, which prompted a long-running court battle. Republicans never proved that voter fraud posed anything resembling a threat to elections, but prosecuting the few isolated cases he can find remains a top priority for state Attorney General Ken Paxton. (Like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Paxton left the state at the height of the winter freeze.)
And measures effectively restricting immigration have been a perennial GOP favorite, no matter how superfluous or redundant. When the Texas legislature in 2017 passed a crackdown on so-called “sanctuary cities” that limit cooperation with immigration authorities, only one county in the state had adopted such a policy. Texas has heaved more than $2 billion at the border over the last decade, even though the federal government already polices it heavily with officers from three agencies that, unlike the National Guard troops and state police deployed by Abbott, are legally empowered to make immigration arrests.
Much of the ideological preening of the last decade owes to the ascendance of the Texas GOP’s right wing during President Barack Obama’s first term. The year 2017 marked the apex of Republican social conservatism in the state largely because the party’s right suffered heavy losses at the polls the next year, as former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s attempt to dislodge Ted Cruz from his Senate seat unexpectedly drove Democratic turnout across the state.
“It put the fear of God into Texas Republicans,” Jones said. “That really sobered Republicans as they went into the 2019 legislative session. In comparative terms, they really downplayed the ideological issues.”
But Republican leaders still struggle to shake the old habit of tilting at windmills. In an interview with Fox News last week, Abbott cited the Texas power debacle as reason to condemn the Green New Deal, a progressive proposal to sprint toward renewable energy. Critics pounced on him, pointing out the obvious: The Texas energy grid is powered overwhelmingly by fossil fuels.
“We don’t have the Green New Deal here in Texas,” said U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, a Fort Worth Democrat. “They have been in charge of this.”