Peña and Ritter Jump Ship

Talk of tables and access raises committee questions

Rep. Aaron Peña, flanked by Allan Ritter
Rep. Aaron Peña, flanked by Allan Ritter (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

So Reps. Allan Ritter of Nederland and Aaron Peña of Edinburg jumped to the Republican Party of Texas yesterday afternoon in a press conference seemingly more loaded with Republican activists and officials than actual members of the press.

But with Peña saying his switch is to get a seat at the table, what does that say about committee seats?

Last session, when the House was balanced 76-74 in the GOP's favor, Speaker Joe Straus split committee chairmanship 18-16 between the two parties. True, the Democrats didn't get the pick of the crop. This time around, with Democrats stuck on 49 seats, that raises an interesting question: Will Straus use the same kind of equation, or will he bow to pressure from the conservative wing of his party to effectively exile the Dems?

At the Tuesday press conference, Peña repeated his rhetoric and said, "Somebody once told me, 'If you don't have a seat at the table, you may be on the menu.'" This seemed particularly odd, since Peña currently chairs House Elections and used to head up Criminal Jurisprudence (where in 2007 he famously killed attempts to create a Texas Innocence Commission.) However, the speaker tried to take the edge off of Pena's comments and the implication that Dems will end up on the menu. He said, "I think what he was getting at was that we have such a large majority at the Republican table."

Peña was coy about his own committee aspirations. "I've always taken the position that I'll take what comes," he said after the press conference. "Sure, being a chairman gives you some authority, but it's the work you do, and the issues that you come up with.

That's an argument that may cut little ice amongst the anti-Straus fringe right, which has portrayed committee chairs as the great and powerful force within the House. Both the Young Conservatives of Texas and the Texas Pastor Council have railed against Straus for picking Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, to chair the House Ways and Means Committee. The YCT went even further, bitching that Straus made former Republican representative, now Texas State University System chancellor Brian McCall chair of calendars. It was these appointments, they rail, that put the kibosh on sufficiently conservative legislation being passed last session. This time around, they've been calling for more conservative chairs (because being a Republican simply isn't enough.)

Straus refused to be drawn on this issue, saying simply, "I will be careful and guarded in terms of what my intentions are in terms of committee chairmanships." So what does that mean? "Without getting scientific and technical with you, I think members can count on me to be fair to both sides."

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Texas House of Representatives, Joe Straus, Republicans, Democrats, Aaron Peña, Allan Ritter, Nederland, Edinburg

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