Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Cheering From The Sidelines The Governor's Approach

Legal Times  October 16, 2000

AUSTIN, Texas - Texas lobbyists and lawmakers love Gov. George W. Bush: He's pro-business. He's able to reach across the political aisle. And, best of all, he leaves them alone.

"He establishes the agenda and then he gets the hell out of the way," says state Sen. Ken Armbrister, a conservative Democrat and a prominent Bush supporter. "He lets us, the legislators, work out the logistics."

In interviews with more than a dozen of this capital city's most prominent lobbyists, as well as a handful of state legislators and members of the Bush administration, a portrait emerges of a politician who has charted a careful course that has allowed him to steer clear of tough political fights and become one of the state's most popular governors in recent history.

Bush's legislative director prefers to describe the governor's management style as hands-off.

"What he looked at were broad public policy type of things," says Bush's top legislative aide, Terral Smith. "And he certainly didn't get involved in day-to-day industry lobbying fights."

Austin political analyst Ross Ramsey put it this way: "It's like watching someone play world-class air guitar."

Indeed, when asked what Bush has actually done to demonstrate his leadership, Texas statehouse lobbyists most frequently point to the start of Bush's first term, when he made a point of introducing himself to every legislator.

And few of the lobbyists can remember ever lobbying the governor's office. Most say they have just checked at the beginning of a lobbying campaign to see whether Bush intends to veto their bill - which he rarely does.

"People don't hire us to work the governor's office," says W. James Jonas III of Arter & Hadden. "That may be a part of what we do, but we get hired to work the agency and the legislature."

One Step Removed

Of course, this is largely due to the fact that the office of governor in Texas is inherently weak. On the Texas totem pole of political power, Bush ranks below the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the House, and senior members of the legislature. The governor is limited to three powers: vetoing bills; appointing, but not firing, agency officials; and the ability to move public opinion.

And while Bush is known for being able to work with Democrats as well as Republicans, it is important to note that in the Texas legislature, there is generally little difference between the two, with most politicians being pro-business and libertarian.

It is a very different role from that played by the chief executive of the United States, who, with his power over the budget and federal agencies, is a key player in every major congressional fight, and in many minor ones.

By most accounts, Bush has exercised his power as governor with a light touch. He seldom uses his veto; he gives agencies free reign; and he has only stepped forward on a few, select issues that were either already popular or clearly pro-business, including his trademark issues of education reform, welfare reform, tort reform, and juvenile justice reform.

Generally, Bush's lack of involvement is not only a matter of conservative politics. He has even largely stayed out of business-to-business fights - all of which is fine by business.

"If you're in business in this state, you want Texas to stay the same," says a state judge who requested anonymity.

And when Bush has been forced to take a stand, he has been careful not to offend business.

Such was the case in 1995, when the federal government threatened to withhold billions of dollars in highway funds if Texas didn't deal with its severe air pollution problem. The Texas legislature was also facing pressure from environmental groups.

After meeting with company executives and their lobbyists, Bush offered a plan, passed into law in 1999, that allowed companies to voluntarily reduce their emissions. By complying, companies hope to avert harsher measures by the legislature, says Ralph Marquez, one of Bush's environmental commissioners. Since the law went into effect, 190 facilities have signaled interest in the program, Marquez says. (The federal government is still monitoring Texas' environmental situation.)

Consulting with industry is a key part of Bush's philosophy, says Marquez. "We do not consider ourselves to be the experts as an agency on everything," he says. "We try to seek out knowledge from those we regulate."

Not surprisingly, industry is pleased and environmental groups say the program has had little effect.

"Basically that bill provides cover for plants who don't want to clean up their act," says Neil Carmen, air quality director for the Sierra Club and a former inspector with Texas' environmental agency.

Opinions also vary about Bush's role in the passage of the four reform measures that he campaigned on - all of which were already set to be considered by the legislature and had broad popular support.

Robert Spelling, a former chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes and one of the lead lobbyists on tort reform, says that Bush's influence made a crucial difference on that issue.

"All of the sudden those who were dug in on it weren't so dug in when the governor made it an important part of his program," he says.

His critics are less generous. From their perspective, Bush is a politician who avoids difficult issues and takes the path of least resistance.

"If it's an easy win, he'll get out front. If he sees he is going to lose, he'll get [with] the program," says Democratic state Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Bush critic who blames the governor for his failure to get behind the hate crimes bill Ellis sponsored last year. "He's always played it very safe. He's not a risk taker. He doesn't show leadership on the tough issues."

Bush should not claim credit for passing the four reform bills, all of which were popular before he took office, says Democratic state Rep. Garnet Coleman. "It's stepping out in front of a parade. It ain't leading it," Coleman says.

Smith, Bush's legislative aide, dismisses the criticism as "hindsight."

Strong No. 2

In explaining his style of governance, Austin lobbyists and politicos frequently turn to Bush's extremely close relationship with the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, who until his death last year was the single most powerful figure in Texas politics.

While Bush and Bullock worked closely together, it was always clear who was in control - and it wasn't the governor. Lobbyist Spelling, a confidant of Bullock, calls the relationship between the two "paternal."

Another former Bullock aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, relates a story from 1995, when Bush had just assumed office and received a call from Bullock, who was at home sick in bed.

After congratulating Bush on his win, Bullock, a Democrat, informed the new governor that he had already drafted Bush's four bills and they were ready to go. It was "just to let him know who was in control," says a former Bullock adviser who was in the room at the time.

Smith, the Bush aide, says he is not aware of the exchange, but says it is possible.

The fact that Bush sought out Bullock's guidance was one of his strengths, says Spelling. "When he first took office, he fully understood that he didn't have a shit [of an idea of] what he was doing," he says.

Bush kept up a close relationship with Bullock and House Speaker Pete Laney. The three shared breakfast every Wednesday. Nobody knows what went on in those discussions. Laney, a Democrat, known for his finesse at the back-room deal, declined to comment on Bush's influence in the legislature.

Bush, in at least one case, felt the ramifications of setting out on his own without Bullock's or Laney's guidance. In 1997, Bush launched a major legislative initiative to reform the tax system without first consulting Bullock and Laney, according to several lobbyists involved in that fight. It quickly got out of his control.

By opening up the tax system, Bush invited a huge battle between business interests, including lawyers, doctors, and other noncorporate partnerships that do not pay business taxes under the current Texas system. By all accounts, Laney quickly took the tax initiative out of Bush's hands. After much fighting in the legislature, what ultimately passed was a simple property tax cut quite different from what Bush had originally proposed.

Gene Fondren, a legend in the Texas lobby world who has run the powerful Texas Automobile Dealers Association since 1972, sees the episode as a learning experience for Bush, one that helped shape the young governor's understanding of his role in Texas politics.

In this case, Fondren says, Bush was wise to give up his fight for the tax reform and give in to the powers that be.

"One of the attributes of Gov. Bush was he accepted defeat of his tax [bill]," says Fondren, whose group opposed the bill. "He could have stuck with his guns and not gotten what he wanted and come back for it another time. The legislature would have been happy to go home without a tax cut at all."

By Samuel Loewenberg