Having an Impact in an Unsure Political Climate

As an eternal optimist, I believe people from different backgrounds and beliefs not only can work together, but this is how true progress happens and a better world is built. It became harder for me to keep this mindset during the past year seeing the division in the country grow deeper surrounding criticism of the BLM, politicization of COVID-19 protocols, the Presidential election, the insurrection on the United States Capitol, and, in the last few days, the need for a heavy National Guard presence at the Texas Capitol. Fear and imposter syndrome had begun to rise in me with questions like, how am I even qualified to have an impact in such an unsure political climate? Yet, as I watched the first two days of the 87th Texas Legislature’s House of Representatives’ floor debate I was reminded why I hold optimistic views. I saw examples of what Chairman Garnet Coleman and Dr. Suzanne Pritzker meant in stating that as a social worker I am not only qualified but uniquely trained to be here.

On the first day of House floor debates I saw some of the skills I have been learning as a social work student displayed by several Texas House members. Rep. Matt Schaefer proposed Amendment 2, asking the House to consider increasing funds allotted to staff House offices, as the Senate did last session, to assist members in paying their staff livable wages as they address the needs of their constituents during both the legislative session and the interim. Other members spoke up, arguing that increasing legislative office budgets while asking for all state agencies to cut their budgets by 5% in a pandemic was not appropriate. As they opposed this proposal, their questions and responses displayed not only a commitment to working together, but also to actively listening, examining potential impacts on stakeholders, and attention to ethics and budget transparency. When members stated support or opposition, they explained the reasoning behind their stances, displaying respect for their fellow members while raising concerns regarding the impact their decisions would have on others.

The genuine desire I saw among members to work towards budgetary decisions that help people while not harming others reminded me of why I chose the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work for the opportunity to participate in this internship. Previously having worked at an inpatient hospital in Arizona, I witnessed budget cuts to the state mental health system that negatively impacted a person’s ability to receive needed care. This experience shaped my desire to analyze policy from the Texas House Committee on Appropriations on behalf of the Texas Legislative Study Group (LSG) this session. Watching this floor debate was a wonderful reminder of the importance of using social work skills like giving grace, showing up with an open mind, actively listening, and responding respectfully regardless if another person’s opinion or position differs from your own. These are skills commonly used in clinical practice, but clearly have a large role in political social work as well.

Yet, when Rep. Schaefer next proposed Amendment 3, which he described would “ensure no taxpayer money will fund, in particular left-wing media, in the state of Texas,” I was once again reminded of the divisiveness that has deepened in this country. Rep. Charlie Geren, a Republican, spoke in opposition to the amendment, explaining that publications from both the left and the right supply him with information about the district he represents, whether or not he agrees with the material. I appreciated Rep. Geren’s objection on several levels, as it reminded me of the issue I have taken with some of the textbook materials I have come across in social work, appearing to have a political leaning to the left by at times only naming Republican elected officials regarding harmful policies and not always doing the same for Democrats. This dynamic on the House floor reminded me that while social workers may align more often with the left, we are meant to be involved in politics to advocate for social justice and identify potentially harmful policy that has and can come from both sides of the aisle. Full policy analysis from a wide range of sources, keeping our Code of Ethics in mind and understanding the impacts locally and globally is how I believe we best do this. I believe there is great importance in understanding all sides of a policy and its impacts in order to give a full analysis, regardless of my personal views, in order to better understand the policy and make a recommendation.

Unlike the U.S. Congress, the Texas House traditionally allows members of the minority party (in this case, Democrats) to hold committee chair positions. The importance of the Texas House continuing to share leadership positions and policy priorities, rather than being led by one party’s priorities alone, was brought up several times during the second day of the House floor debates. Yet, this ideal is not shared by all members, which became apparent when Rep. Bryan Slaton proposed an amendment to challenge this. As discussion continued, an amendment to an amendment to this amendment was proposed, which would stipulate Texas Republican legislative priorities as the priorities of the Texas House. While Slaton’s amendment ultimately did not pass, concern regarding this amendment only grew among myself and the members of my internship cohort, as it seemed to go against the NASW Code of Ethics. The entire floor discussion left me wondering which legislators would speak out against proposed policy that runs counter to the stated ideals of the Texas House, of both sharing responsibilities and accurately representing the wishes of all Texans.

Thankfully, as part of our preparation to begin this experience, Dr. Pritzker emphasized the importance of understanding the Texas political system. This was reiterated by LSG’s Executive Director Brittany Sharp when she taught us about amendments and floor debates and explained the legislative tactic of calling a “point of order.” In this situation, Rep. Brooks Landgraf’s single voice raised a point of order, calling for the House to essentially throw out the proposed amendment, arguing that it violated state constitutional rules. I believe an action like this shows a commitment to following the rules and wishes of an entire state. I realize as someone who only recently moved to Texas, I could be at a disadvantage understanding how the Texas political system works, but as a social worker I am guided by our Code of Ethics to seek guidance and clarification from colleagues who have knowledge and experience to help me navigate working at the Capitol as a newer political social worker.

While this year has shown me divisive attempts will continue, what I have observed on the House floor highlights the importance of understanding the system I am working in and the tools I already have that can help me to be successful. These tools will help me not only with nonpartisan policy analysis, but also with keeping my optimism and continuing to work towards social justice and equity. I am grateful for not only this opportunity, but the support navigating how to be successful from Dr. Pritzker and the UH Graduate College of Social Work, Chairman Coleman’s office, alumni of the GCSW Austin Legislative Internship Program, my field instructor Monica Faulkner, Brittany Sharp, and especially my internship cohort. Together we will find clarity in our roles, remind each other of how our field’s guiding principles and ethics qualify us to be in a public policy arena, provide each other with continued support and encouragement during rough patches, and celebrate every little win along the way, like a successful point of order.

by Audrey Erwin, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Originally posted from University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work’s Austin Legislative Internship Program. The College selects graduate MSW students to intern at the Texas Legislature during its legislative session every two years. This post was syndicated with permission from its authors.

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