WASHINGTON — From the White House to the halls of Congress, Texas has for decades wielded heavy clout in the upper echelons of national politics — until now.
For the first time since at least President Richard Nixon’s tenure, no Texans are serving in the Cabinet, the top tier of presidential advisers.
Considering that Nixon followed Texan Lyndon B. Johnson — who served as president, vice president and majority leader of the U.S. Senate — it’s been quite a comedown to watch President Joe Biden fill his top-level bench with players from other states.
At least it hasn’t been a complete shutout, with Texans nominated or confirmed to leadership positions with the U.S. Census Bureau, immigration enforcement and the Air Force.
But the state also has lost clout on Capitol Hill, where only one U.S. House committee chair hails from Texas: Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, who leads the Science, Space and Technology Committee. That’s down from seven committee chairmanships when the GOP controlled the House most of the past decade.
Things are tough in the U.S. Senate, too, where the state’s two GOP members are in the minority party and John Cornyn had to step down as whip, the No. 2 Senate Republican, at the end of 2018 because of term limits.
Clout gets measured in Washington because of the results it can yield. For Texas, it has produced tax breaks for the oil and gas sector, revived sales taxes deductions on federal tax returns (helpful to residents of Texas and other states without an income tax) and built large projects such as NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing plant in Fort Worth.
Lost clout has consequences as well.
“Voters need to know how important it is to have Texans in power in Washington,” said Ben Barnes, a former lieutenant governor who is now an Austin-based lobbyist and a top adviser to national Democrats who control the White House and both houses of Congress.
Republican strategist John Feehery, a former top aide to GOP House leaders, including then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, put it bluntly: “When you lose clout in Congress and in the administration, your voice will be ignored in Washington.”
Having a Democrat in the White House dimmed prospects for Texas, where the Republican Party has held sway for almost three decades.
“As Texas has become more and more Republican, it has become less important to Democrats,” Barnes said. “We don’t have the Democratic bench as we used to.”
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, agrees. “Republican dominance in Texas since the late ’90s has left Texas Democrats with a thin bench,” he said.
Few Democrats have statewide stature, and there is limited opportunity to make a name on Capitol Hill, where the 13 Texas Democrats are outnumbered by 23 Republicans in the U.S. House.
Turnover in Congress has played a role as well.
“Texas is changing politically and growing more competitive, and that transition has left the state with fewer long-term members, and therefore without significant clout for the first time since the 1920s,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston.
“Gaining clout in Congress is like pushing a boulder up a hill. It’s a hard road up, and once it tumbles down, it is a long way back up again,” Rottinghaus said.
Cabinet empty of Texans
The number of Cabinet positions or their rank can change with each president, and Texans have served Cabinet roles in previous Democratic administrations — Julián Castro, a former San Antonio mayor, was President Barack Obama’s secretary of housing, and former U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen was President Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary.
Biden’s Cabinet consists of 15 chiefs of executive departments and nine Cabinet-level officials. Although none of those is from the state, three Texans have been tapped to take on significant responsibilities:
• Gina Ortiz Jones of San Antonio was recently confirmed by the Senate as undersecretary of the Air Force. The former Air Force intelligence officer was an unsuccessful Democratic congressional candidate for a vast border district, losing a close race in 2018 to U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, and falling short in 2020 when it was an open seat.
• Robert Santos of Austin, a statistician who is vice president of the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, was nominated to be director of the U.S. Census Bureau and would be the first person of color to serve in that position.
• Ed Gonzalez, the Harris County sheriff who was a vocal critic of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, was nominated as director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
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Gonzalez and Santos are expected to be approved when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee meets Wednesday, sending their nominations to the full Senate for a vote.
In addition, Denison native Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, captain of the passenger jet that landed safely on New York’s Hudson River after its engines failed in 2009, was named U.S. representative on the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization, with the rank of ambassador.
Sullenberger’s confirmation hearing has not yet been scheduled, but he has marquee value — in a movie about the daring incident, he was played by actor Tom Hanks.
Texas still a source of green
No matter who’s in charge in Washington, however, Texas will always have one clout-preserving advantage: money.
Texans donated almost $45 million to Biden’s presidential campaign in the 2020 cycle, the fourth highest among the states, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
“Texas always has some influence because of its size and, more recently, because of the Democrats’ hope that it will eventually turn into a swing state,” said Kirby Goidel, a political science professor at Texas A&M University. “If those hopes are ever to be realized, Democrats can’t take Texas for granted by pushing national policies that hurt locally.”
Republicans know how to tap the Lone Star State as well. Trump, who won Texas by 5.5 percentage points in 2020, raked in $72.3 million from Texas donors, second highest in the nation.
Texans in the Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions
Under Donald Trump
Rex Tillerson, secretary of state
Rick Perry, secretary of energy
Dan Brouillette, secretary of energy
Under Barack Obama
Julián Castro, secretary of housing and urban development
Ron Kirk, U.S. trade representative
Robert Gates, secretary of defense
Under George W. Bush
Don Evans, secretary of commerce
Alberto Gonzales, attorney general
Alphonso Jackson, secretary of HUD
Margaret Spellings, secretary of education
Robert Gates, secretary of defense
Under Bill Clinton
Lloyd Bentsen, secretary of the treasury
Henry Cisneros, secretary of HUD
Under George H.W. Bush
James Baker, secretary of state
Robert Mosbacher, secretary of commerce
Robert Strauss, ambassador to USSR and later Russia
Lauro Cavazos, secretary of education
Under Ronald Reagan
James Baker, secretary of the treasury
Lauro Cavazos, secretary of education
William Sessions, FBI director
Under Jimmy Carter
Robert Strauss, U.S. trade representative
Under Gerald Ford
George H.W. Bush, CIA director
Anne Armstrong, counselor to the president (Cabinet rank)
Under Richard Nixon
John Connally, secretary of the treasury
George H.W. Bush, ambassador to the United Nations
Anne Armstrong, counselor to the president