As Governor George W. Bush ran for President in 2000, reporters and pundits trotted out sound-bite versions of a lesson students have been taught about Texas for years: Compared to the U.S. President or the chief executives of other states, the Texas Governor occupies a "weak" office.
The main source of the relative weakness of the Texas Governor can be found in the historical conditions surrounding the Texas Constitution of 1876. Mindful of the experience of Reconstruction - the period after the Civil War when Republican governors wielded extensive executive powers and were resisted by conservative elites in the state - the authors of the new constitution sought to rein in future governors. They did so by dispersing power that might otherwise be lodged in the chief executive's hands among a vast array of independently elected officials. Broad powers over the legal system, state budget and finances, education, transportation, agriculture, public utilities, and land development are delegated to officials who need not share the policies nor even be of the same political party as the governor.
The dispersal of power among different officials creates what is often called the plural executive. Unlike the federal system, where the cabinet secretaries and the other top executive officers serve at the pleasure of the President, the voters elect the corresponding officials in the Texas system, giving the Governor no direct authority over them.
It is not surprising that the design of Texas government got thoroughly washed in the spin cycles of the 2000 election. Bush's supporters played up his cooperation with Democratic Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock and his successes in the areas of tax reduction and education. Bipartisan leadership on these issues, his supporters argued, would also be the mark of a Bush presidency. His opponents pointed out the limitations placed on Texas governors, calling into question both the extent of Bush's experience and whether he really deserved credit for the policy initiatives trumpeted by his supporters. The Governor occupies a weak office, the critics claimed, whose success really depends on others, such as the Lieutenant Governor - in this case, a powerful Democrat. So Bush was taking credit for successes he only appeared to play an important role in achieving.
These conflicting election-year claims can be examined by looking closely at the constitutional and legal arrangements that limit the Governor, and the ways in which governors have responded to these limits. The constitutional definition of the governor's office is undeniably weaker than in almost all other states. Throughout this section, we compare the Texas governor's powers with those of other governors and of the U.S. President, and find the Texas Governor with fewer resources. Yet despite the office's weaknesses, throughout Texas history, successful governors have found ways to exercise political power and promote their policies from this relatively weak office. We will focus on the office of the governor, then will briefly examine the other parts of the executive branch that also exercise influence over the lives of Texans.
(For recent approval ratings of the Texas Governor based on the results of polling by the Texas Politics project and the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin, see the links in the feature box on the right side of the page. For more information on and from this research polling, see the "Polling" chapter of Texas Politics.)