Lone Star Lawmakers Are Poised to Shine on the Hill

Article excerpt

Texa's delegation to the 104th Congress delves into the heart of the Republican leadership. However, a reform-minded GOP and an impatient body politic may check the influence of the legislators.

Not since the days of House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson has the Texas congressional delegation broken bread together - or enjoyed as much power as it now wields in Congress.

When 28 of Texas `32 federal lawmakers ate lunch together in early February, they talked about state issues, which they are in a good position to influence. The diners' club included a majority leader, a majority whip, two committee chairmen, four subcommittee chairmen, a minority campaign chairman and a deputy minority whip.

Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who lobbied for the meal-time merger after the GOP won control of Congress, calls it "the beginning of a real strengthening of our delegation."

"It's important that we have power. It makes a difference," Hutchison says of her fellow Texans in Congress. "And I think we do have more power than we've had since the Johnson-Rayburn days."

But many, including Hutchison herself, say that power won't buy what it used to. No other state delves as deeply into the congressional leadership ranks, but with a moody electorate and a new Republican majority in Congress committed to reducing government's size, nobody quite knows what the latest Texas flood will leave in its wake.

Forty years ago, Texans had enough clout in Congress to set policy, dispense money and favors and take care of the folks back home. Today, the state's renewed prominence on Capitol Hill "is not going to translate into the kind of clout that people understood in the past," predicts Lewis Gould, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Nonetheless, Texans already are flexing some old-fashioned political muscle. Lufkin, Texas, is poised to become the manufacturing home of the new Erint missile - successor to the Patriot antimissile defense - thanks in part to campaigning by Texans on the Hill.

"When you have the leadership, it does help to make sure that your issues are in the forefront," says Hutchison, who helped bring the Erint project to Lufkin.

Texans do have the leadership:

* In the House, Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay hold the No. 2 and 3 leadership posts. Bill Archer chairs the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and Larry Combest presides over the Select Intelligence Committee. Jack Fields heads the Commerce subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance; Joe Barton, the Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation; and Lamar Smith, the Judiciary subcommittee on Immigration and Claims.

Also, Chet Woods serves as chief deputy minority whip, while Martin Frost chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

* In the Senate, Phil Gramm, a presidential contender, chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary while Hutchison is cochairman of the GOP Regulatory Relief Task Force.

"It's clearly a home run," Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, says of her state's leadership roster. "There is now a vast voice for Texas issues."

Texas' 32 federal lawmakers - 19 Democrats and 13 Republicans - give it the third-largest delegation in Congress. California has 54; New York, 33.

Some observers say Texans already drive key parts of the Republican agenda. "These people have the bit in their mouth and they're really going to go to town," political analyst Kevin Phillips said recently on Think Tank, a panel of pundits on public television.

"I've been surprised to see how much of the Republican economic framework is coming from Texas," Phillips said. "Texas is a state where you've got a regressive consumption tax, no progressive income tax so the fellows can have their $600 cowboy boots, and a lousy safety net. …