Texas Tribune News
WASHINGTON — It was approaching 4 a.m. on June 13, and freshman U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, had kept his new colleagues in the House of Representatives chained to their desks for more than 12 hours.
Lawmakers had convened the afternoon before to vote on a trillion-dollar spending bill to address the escalating crisis at the southern border. But Roy, livid at a Democratic attempt to push the bill through by voice vote — an imprecise method that obscures member accountability — forced the House to hold time-sucking roll call votes for each of the dozens of amendments in the spending package, stretching voting long into the morning hours.
Wandering the House floor, bleary-eyed members groused and cursed their new colleague.
“Are we getting paid overtime for this?” demanded one member.
“Pick your battles,” another tacitly advised.
“I’m missing my fundraiser for this,” said a third — a chorus of complaints that Roy shrugged off as “a glossary of swamp rhetoric.”
For all the frustration, few lawmakers on the floor were missing more that evening than Roy. The night he had chosen to take his stand also happened to be his 15th wedding anniversary.
Since arriving in his new post this year, Roy has sacrificed familial obligations and popularity on the cliquey House floor to employ a kind of procedural terrorism, yanking on obscure legislative levers to stall the body’s movement and frustrate the efforts of the House’s Democratic majority. In May, he singlehandedly stalled a $19 billion disaster relief bill. In the weeks following, he repeatedly delayed Democratic progress on the border crisis to push for President Donald Trump’s enforcement-focused funding requests.
Roy’s cavalier approach on the House floor is all the more brash given the precariousness of his congressional seat: He earned the spot by a narrow margin last year, and next year he is set to face the Democratic superstar and former state Sen. Wendy Davis, who announced her candidacy earlier this week.
For Roy, his critics in Congress have little ground to stand on. Voting, after all, is the basis of their jobs. He likes to point out that American approval for Congress is abysmally low, and he questions why a disruptor is so unpopular. “When you’re rattling against that, why are you the bad guy?” he said.
To some in Washington, the attitude sounds all too familiar, calling to mind the behavior of another polarizing Texas freshman of recent memory: U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
The resemblance is not merely stylistic. Cruz is a longtime mentor to Roy, and Roy was the first chief of staff for the Republican senator from Texas. During Cruz’s much-maligned government shutdown in 2013, Roy served as the conductor behind the scenes, steering the Cruz team through an onslaught of media attacks and the defection of Senate Republican allies to sustain 16 tireless days of obstruction. Backlash from Democrats was expected, but the strategy also incensed the Republican establishment.
Now, Roy has unapologetically brought those tactics to the House.
“A lot of Republicans don’t understand what being in the minority means,” Roy said in an interview with The Texas Tribune last week. “When you’re in the minority, you use the tools at your disposal to create some difficult paths for the majority in order to get what you want.”
A conservative pedigree
In a city known for its stodgy and calculating politicians, Roy is dynamic and singular. An anti-establishment Tea Partier who has nonetheless dedicated the bulk of his career to the causes of political insiders, Roy can veer deftly between fiery immigration speeches on the House floor, wonky strategizing on byzantine procedural quirks and breezy talk about the sports teams of his alma mater, the University of Virginia. (Aside from his lengthy political resume, Roy’s secondary claim to fame is a year as the dorm resident assistant to pro-football phenoms Tiki and Ronde Barber, both of whom attended his wedding.)
Often, Roy’s trenchant conservatism compels him to break form with Republican allies. When Trump’s racist “go back” tweet froze the GOP recently, Roy was the first Republican congressman to speak up. His moral certitude and political independence were perhaps forged in darker times: In describing his character, friends often cite Roy’s fight to overcome cancer, stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosed in 2011.
Roy came to Congress with a sterling conservative pedigree. In the decade and a half before running for public office, he was a fixture in the backrooms of some of the country’s most powerful conservative causes.
Apart from his time at the helm of the Cruz team, Roy worked in the office of the Texas attorney general for both Ken Paxton and John Cornyn, staffed Cornyn’s 2002 Senate campaign while moonlighting as a law student, and was the ghost author of then-Gov. Rick Perry’s 2010 book, “Fed Up!” — an anti-establishment cri de coeur with a plan to “save America from Washington.”
But for better or worse, it is the Cruz tie that sticks. In the eyes of critics, Roy managed, in just six short months in Congress, to masterfully embody the attributes that most infuriated colleagues of his former boss.
As Cruz argued in an interview, the comparisons were inevitable.
“There’s a national media narrative that has been repeated in multiple outlets, that Cruz in 2013 led a crazy government shutdown that was terrible for the Republican Party. Now Chip Roy is going to the House and doing those same sort of crazy things that are going to be terrible and get him voted out of office,” Cruz said. “Each step of that narrative is false.”
Both Cruz and Roy remember the shutdown fondly, as a righteous cause shot down by the cowardice and myopia of their own side. The freshman senator, with Roy at his back, served as the ringleader of a rogue Republican group that refused to approve a budget that didn’t defund the Affordable Care Act. In late September of 2013, before a trusted team of staffers, Cruz read aloud from Psalm 40 (“troubles without number surround me / my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see”) before he marched to the Senate floor and delivered a marathon 21-hour speech against the health care law. With the senator holding down the floor and the public spotlight, it was Roy orchestrating staffers to hold up a movement opposed from nearly every angle.
With Cruz urging conservatives to stand firm, Congress went more than two weeks past its deadline to reach a budget deal, shutting the federal government down for 16 days.
It did not take long for Republicans to splinter over the merits of such an unorthodox mission. Although the shutdown had the backing of the Republican-controlled House and a handful of Senate allies, Republican leadership eventually decided to undercut Cruz, brokering a deal with the Democrats, reopening the government, and pushing Affordable Care Act funding through virtually unscathed.
Several top Republicans made their frustrations known.
“We started this on a fool’s errand, convincing so many millions of Americans and our supporters that we could defund Obamacare,” Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said at the time, pinning the blame for this fantasy on Cruz’s right wing, the “Tea Parties specifically.”
Roy stands by the decision today and still harbors some antipathy for the Republicans who undermined the cause.
“Was I intimately involved with it? Yes. Unapologetically. I think it was the right strategy,” Roy said. “And but for the same hand-wringers in the Senate that continue to give us the status quo, we might have been successful.”
A force of nature
After more than a decade of work in the shadows of Texas giants, Roy decided to aim for leadership himself. In a race for the Hill Country seat vacated by longtime U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, Roy, a relative unknown at the time, cleared a packed primary field of 18 other GOP candidates and then narrowly beat out his Democratic opponent. He had the anointing of his former boss. “A conservative in his bones,” Cruz called him at the time.
And like Cruz before him, Roy sees himself as a pebble in the gears of the Washington political machine. In a span of just three weeks early this summer, Roy established a reputation as the leading obstructionist in the House. First, in the final hours before Congressional recess on the last day of May, Roy singlehandedly stalled a $19 billion bipartisan relief bill — one that was scheduled to send billions of disaster aid funding to Texas— right on the cusp of hurricane season. And for much of June, he hobbled Congressional progress with repeated procedural attacks, holding members late into the evening on several occasions with procedural demands that served mostly to slow things down — and didn’t much change what Congress produced.
“It’s silly. It’s beneath a member of Congress,” said U.S Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from El Paso and fellow freshman. “The way that you get legislation passed, the way that you move bills in a place like this is through relationships … and [Roy] has, I think, undermined his own district by blowing up relationships on both sides of the aisle.”
But proponents of Roy’s approach laud a unique savviness for gaming the legislative system.
For Roy’s biggest fans, the obstructionism that the congressman deploys stems not from a disrespect for Congress and its members, but out of a fealty to his constituents and to his word, whether it is personally convenient or not. Texas political strategist Jason Johnson, who has worked closely with both Cruz and Roy and who was with them in the war room during the shutdown, calls Roy “a force of nature,” describing a politician uniquely fearless in the face of backwards Congressional custom.
“The idea from D.C.’s perspective is, if you are elected and you haven’t been there for 30 years, you should sit down and shut up,” Johnson said. “Ted Cruz and Chip Roy both believe … if the people give you the honor of being their voice, you don’t waste a day in being their voice.”
Still, many Republicans were reportedly incensed by Roy’s tactics earlier this summer. And some are still wary of speaking publicly about their colleague.
“I’m not sure I want to get into this story,” U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Lubbock, joked before obliging a few questions about Roy’s popularity in the Republican caucus. “As a freshman congressman, you should be in a posture of observing and trial and error. And maybe you deploy one set of strategies and decide that that’s not working … so you try it differently. I’m still learning, too.”
Cornyn, too, was diplomatic in his commentary on his former staffer’s approach.
“Look, I try not to tell the House guys how to run their shop, and they don’t tell the Senate how to run ours.” he said. “I understand his point. That’s probably all I’m going to say about that.”
Cornyn emphasizes that in Texas’ emerging political climate, nobody is safe. And as alarm bells sound for Texas Republicans, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative like Roy may have as much to fear as anyone. Tectonic demographic shifts will redraw the political landscape in Texas. The days of Republican dominance could be numbered. The margin of Roy’s last election was 2.6 points.
And although Roy has kicked up plenty of dust in Washington, he is less known beyond political circles, leaving ample room for opponents to tag him with the heavy name of one of the most hated politicians in the country.
“This whole thing about trying to brand me as Ted Cruz — I’m honored,” said Roy. “He’s one of the smartest guys I’ve known. I think he’s a great senator from Texas. I was proud to be his chief of staff. But I’m Chip Roy.”
Next year, Roy’s reelection bid should offer an early referendum on the state’s political trajectory. He is on a collision course to meet an equally polarizing politician in Davis, whose pro-choice, unabashedly progressive reputation makes her a fitting foil.
But with Texas’ rock-ribbed conservative roots set to clash with the state’s encroaching liberal future, Roy confesses none of the uncertainty or anxiety that has dogged his Republican colleagues.
“I fear the Lord,” he said. “I’m not afraid of politics.”