The Texas Six-Pack

Texas broke with tradition when it sent six new Republicans to Congress. Now the six are breaking a few traditions on their own.

June 1985By Comments

Joe Linus Barton goes by “Joe,” but once you’ve heard his middle name, it’s hard to get it out of your mind. With his youthful, unlined baby face, disarming informality, and earnest aggie enthusiasm, the freshman Republican congressman from the Sixth District has the agreeably disconcerting look of a congressman from Peanuts.

His long-shot election in his first try for elective office didn’t dispel the image. Running in a district that sprawls from Houston to a mile south of Dallas, the 35-year-old Barton outflanked his opponents on the right and came from nowhere to win the Republican primary by a ten-vote margin. Then he wrapped himself tightly in the coattails of President Reagan and his Sixth District predecessor, Phil Gramm, mounted a massive get-out-the-Aggies drive, and upset political veteran Dan Kubiak, finishing with 57 percent of the vote. It’s almost the stuff of the next Charlie Brown special.

But wait! Here we are in Barton’s office, the 1985 Aggie Oilman’s Calendar prominently displayed, and if you closed your eyes you would think you were at an SDS meeting in 1969. The freshman congressman from Ennis, four months on the job, is even wearing his obligatory revolutionary button, only it has black biblical print on a turquoise background and reads, “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” a comment on the offense that Republicans think the Democrats have committed in the cliff-hanger election in Indiana’s Eighth District. Each party can point to recounts showing that its man won. But the count that matters was done in the Democrat-controlled House. It declared Democrat Frank McCloskey the winner over Republican Rick McIntyre by all of four votes. As four somewhat nonplussed Texas reporters listen, Barton explains why the McIntyre affair is enough of an outrage to convince him that it’s time for the Republicans to shut down the House of Representatives.

Barton says the Republican response could range from nonviolent protests that would not interfere with normal operations of the House to wholesale disruptions that would make it impossible for the House to function. “That’s ‘You name it, and we’ll do it,’" he says, describing the most severe option. “We’re not going to put up with it. We’ve had it. This is the last in a long line of unacceptable actions the Democrats have forced upon the minority party, and we’re tired of putting up with it. As far as what I’m going to do, I’m willing to do anything. You can put me in the supermilitant category. I would be willing to totally shut the House down.

“I’m sure the Democrats are trying to do what they think is right, but we as Republicans can’t just be docile little sheep and jump through the hoop because they’ve got seventy more votes than we do. If all we do is talk tough and act like pussycats, then we ought to get rolled by the Democrats on this thing.”

These, you may have heard, are not normal times on Capitol Hill, particularly in the House of Representatives, where partisan and ideological frictions are more intense than they have been for decades. A week after Barton’s press conference, McCloskey was seated and the Republicans walked out of the House in protest, the first such walkout since 1890.

There’s no better indication of changing times in the House than the Texas delegation. When Texas elected six freshman Republicans to the House last November, the delegation took an unprecedented leap into the Republican camp. The six, who have picked up the catchy nickname “the Texas Six-pack,” are Barton, Tom DeLay of Sugar Land, Larry Combest of Lubbock, Richard Armey of Denton, Beau Boulter of Amarillo, and Mac Sweeney of Wharton. (The sole Democratic freshman is Albert Bustamante of San Antonio.) Once one of the most solid Democratic delegations, the 27 Texans in the House now have 10 Republicans among them, up from 6 two years ago. It is now the third-largest Republican delegation in the House, and its freshman class is one of the more contentious ones. The new members’ brief and stormy tenure reflects fundamental changes in the way the Texas delegation and the House as a whole do business. And although the Texans represent the force of the conservative tide, they are also an example of how hard it can be to translate popular rhetoric into concrete results.

To get a sense of the changing nature of the Texas delegation, it is necessary only to view two wildly disparate events: the monthly meeting of the Texas Breakfast Club and the extemporaneous orations of acid-tongued Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich. A recent meeting of the breakfast club, on a Thursday morning in April, drew about 280 Texans, pseudo-Texans, former Texans, staffers for Texas congressmen, and Texas media types, who crowded in to hear the day’s guest, Supreme Court justice and El Paso native Sandra Day O’Connor. The club began more than twenty years ago, when the Texas delegation was the most unified and probably the most powerful in Washington. Since then the breakfasts have been a nonpartisan exercise in good-natured fellowship and chauvinism. “I thought you might want to hear the inside story of how the Supreme Court really works,” said O’Connor after she was introduced by Congressman Ralph Hall. “But Ralph said, ‘No, this is a pretty sophisticated group. I think what they’d really like to hear is how proud you are to be from Texas.’ ”

The breakfast session hasn’t changed much, and even some of the more ideological young Republicans, such as Barton, Armey, and DeLay, are on hand as a show that they’re Texans as well as Republicans. But the Texas delegation is another story. A decade ago it was still dominated by Democratic veterans who had served with Sam Rayburn, and it was the consummate insiders’ delegation. The group emphasized taking care of the state’s interests and believed in the long, slow process of accumulating power through seniority and then making the most of it. Its members included powerful committee chairmen such as Wright Patman (Banking and Currency), Olin E. “Tiger” Teague (Science and Technology), Ray Poage (Agriculture), and George Mahon (Appropriations). But their power was on the wane by the mid-seventies, and the old order all but passed away in 1978 when six House Democrats retired or left their seats, taking 190 years of seniority with them.

If the breakfast club, with its airy civility and Texas chauvinism, is a reminder of how things have worked in the past, the best indicator of the pressures of the present is Gingrich, the agent provocateur of the New Right. Gingrich’s Conservative Opportunity Society (COS) has been the main conduit for Republican dissatisfaction with the Democrats controlling the House. Gingrich has taken the consummate outsider’s path to power. To him and his followers, the McIntyre affair was only the most dramatic evidence supporting their opinion that the Democrats run the House in a high-handed and unfair way that suffocates Republican representation. Gingrich and his COS have created conflict, raised issues, appealed through the media, and made as much noise as possible to carry their case outside the normal quiet chambers of power in the House. If the old way is the politics of politics, Gingrich believes in the politics of theatre. Of the six Texas freshmen, Barton, Boulter, Armey, and to a lesser extent DeLay have affiliated themselves with Gingrich’s approach. They might be able to balance the normal comity of the delegation with the Gingrich agenda, but you only have to listen to Gingrich a short time to have doubts.

Gingrich speaks in a seamless string of quotes, like a computer programmed to provide a good copy for reporters. So when asked what the Indiana affair shows Texas Republicans, he pauses for a moment, as if to get his motor running, and then starts to speak in a decisive monotone, like a man reading from a prepared text.

“The McIntyre case has convinced them more rapidly than any other experience would have that the Democrats they deal with on a regular basis are dishonorable men,” he begins. “I think that when they went and heard Jim Wright at the first Texas luncheon say, ‘We’re all in this together as Texans,’ and then they watched Jim Wright, as the first motion of the year, steal a seat from the people of Indiana, and when they tried to see Jim Wright and reason with him and dealt with a cold, ruthless boss, that it radicalized them into understanding that the people on the Democratic side of the aisle in leadership in this House are not men of goodwill that you can deal with rationally and as reasonable people.”

“Because of the nature of the modern Democratic party in the House, which is essentially an ostrich, ideological left-wing party combined with bossism, in order for people like Jim Wright to rise, they have to be willing to move to the left. So what you now have is a guy from Texas who represents the New York-California left-wing viewpoint but who brings enough pork barrel home to Texas to get reelected. I think that as people in Texas understand better the ideological cost, you’re going to have more and more people faced with the choice, ‘How much do I really want the next piece of pork barrel and how much am I willing to have my beliefs systematically betrayed?’ And I think what they’re going to say is they want a congressman who’s effective in getting pork and is able to represent their viewpoint.”

That sort of ad hominem rhetoric used to be largely off-limits in Congress, but Gingrich has made it the basic coin of the realm. The McIntyre affair has helped raise the emotional ante to new highs, so when Barton is asked if he agrees with Gingrich’s assessment of Wright and the Democrats, he is only slightly more circumspect. “A reasonable individual could reach that opinion based on the objective facts in this case,” he says. As a reasonable person, is that the opinion he has reached? “I haven’t reached it yet, but I’m close to it,” he says.

The six freshmen Republicans came to Congress from diverse and largely unconventional backgrounds. But in terms of politics they’re basically six peas from the same conservative pod.

Barton is an A&M industrial engineering graduate whose only government experience was as a White House Fellow in 1981. DeLay, 38, served three terms in the state Legislature and ran Albo Pest Control in Stafford before succeeding Ron Paul, who stepped down to run for the Senate. Armey, 44, was an economics professor at North Texas State University and had never run for office before taking on incumbent Tom Vandergriff in the Twenty-sixth District. Sweeney, 29, had worked in various government jobs, most recently as a White House aide, before challenging incumbent Bill Patman in the Fourteenth District in South Texas. Combest, 40, worked as an aide to senator John Tower from 1971 to 1978 before returning to Texas to run an electronics distributing company. He was elected to succeed Democrat Kent Hance after Hance gave up his Nineteenth District seat to run for the Senate. Boulter, 43, is an Amarillo oil-and-gas attorney whose only experience in politics before he defeated incumbent Democrat Jack Hightower in November had been a stint on the Amarillo city commission. Of the six, DeLay is the only one with elective experience at a level as high as state representative.

That diversity doesn’t carry over into ideology. They’re young, energetic, telegenic conservatives who were swept up by the Reagan-Gramm Texas landslide. “We are all what you would consider the new young right,” says DeLay. “We’re all very conservative.” To varying degrees, each one is outspoken about cutting federal spending and favors a conservative, pro-life, prayer-in-schools social agenda. For what it’s worth, the Democrats they ran against generally supported the same things. The six have enough in common that one firm, the conservative Southern Political Consulting, ran campaigns for three of them (Boulter, Armey, and DeLay) and helped draft a fourth (Sweeney) to run. Two of the firm’s principals head the staffs for Boulter and Armey.

Sweeney, Boulter, and Armey, the three who beat incumbent Democrats, were aided not just by the top of the ticket but also by Christian New Right groups that poured money into Texas to try to paint the incumbents as dangerous free-spenders with the social agenda of New York Democrats. Trying to paint Vandergriff, Patman, and Hightower as wild liberals is akin to painting a giraffe black and white and trying to pass it off as a zebra. But the Reagan-Gramm tide was strong enough in Texas to do some pretty remarkable things.

House Republicans, who have suddenly seen their numbers and influence soar, are understandably enthusiastic about the additions to their ranks. “This group, by virtue of their strengths and credentials, has the potential to change the political landscape in Texas both in terms of national input and their effects on the Texas political scene,” said Dallas Republican congressman Steve Bartlett. “This group of ten Republicans as opposed to the traditional five portends a political revolution in Texas.”

Democrats tend to be less impressed. “They’re a bunch of knee-jerk right-wingers who have a pat answer for every complicated question,” said one Democratic congressman. “To them, you’re either a right-wing Republican or you’re a bad guy.”

Traditionally, House freshmen have limited themselves to doing their committee work, putting their staffs together, and running back to their districts enough to get reelected. Not so this time around. There’s something of an antic quality to the Texas freshmen that reflects the uncharacteristically emotion-laden nature of the current session and the increasingly polarized nature of the House.

Conservatives like to think of Washington as the seat of liberal evil, but what is most striking about Washington today is the proliferation of conservative activity. That is most apparent in the media like the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s far right daily, the Washington Times (NICHOLSON’S COLD-BLOODED MURDER WAS LAWFUL, SOVIET EMBASSY SAYS), and farther right tabloids like the Washington Inquirer (JFK TREACHERY REVEALED—FREEDOM FIGHTERS WERE DOUBLE-CROSSED), which give every jogger the latest in conservative thought. You don’t even have to walk into the offices of most congressmen to see how they stand. The conservative activists all have posters—conceived by Barton and his staff—on their doors, featuring an empty chair, the words of the U.S. Constitution, and the slogan “Seat McIntyre. He Won!” The Democrats have their own poster, featuring a Republican elephant sitting on a stuffed ballot box. Its slogan reads, “Cut the Rhetoric, Count the Ballots.”

When the six new Republicans from Texas came to town, fresh from what were mostly come-from-behind, upset victories, they found themselves on the crest of a heady conservative wave. They also found themselves in the middle of the one institution in Washington least susceptible to that tide. Despite the Republican gain of 16 seats, Democrats in the House outnumber Republicans, 253 to 182. That’s 10 more seats than the Democrats had when Ronald Reagan entered the White House. What you have in the House is the conservative wave hitting a Democratic wall. There’s something telling in the different ways the six Texas freshmen have reacted to hitting that wall.

Armey and Barton have staked out the least-conventional political turf. So far, it has probably done them more harm than good, but the dissidents have so much strength and the anger over the McIntyre affair is so broad that there’s plenty of breathing space on the Republican right wing. “I think every Republican in the House was outraged by the blatant abuse of majority power in the Indiana race,” says Congressman Tom Loeffler, the relatively moderate House chief deputy whip for the Republicans and a possible gubernatorial candidate against Mark White.

Armey, who may be the most doggedly conservative member of Congress, has voted against legislation with such numbing regularity that he has already been dubbed Doctor No. For example, when the House voted on a so-called whistle blower bill to reward federal employees who ferret out waste and inefficiency, the count was 413-1. Guess who the one was. “They are employed to do the best job they can for the American people, and they shouldn’t be paid extra,” Armey said later. “I considered this a bribery, but in a larger sense I saw it as a smoke screen. Every congressman in America can go home and say, ‘I voted for a cost-cutting measure.’”

The highlight if his tenure so far has been an acrimonious dispute with Speaker Tip O’Neill, the devil of all devils in the Republican cosmology, over an Armey-sponsored resolution condemning the Soviet Union for the shooting of Major Arthur D. Nicholson. The bill was pulled from the House calendar in late April in what Democrats said was a routine move that would have delayed it a few days. In fact, two other bills were pulled the same day. But Armey saw it as a sinister and capricious maneuver to quash the resolution. He took to the House floor, saying, “If Mr. Gorbachev is testing our resolve, let’s show him we’ve come to play hardball. If Mr. Gorbachev is seeing just how far he can push us, let’s call his bluff.” He got his resolution back on the calendar, and his exultant staff crowed that the boss had gone eyeball to eyeball with Tip, and Tip had blinked. Such are the epic struggles of the Ninety-ninth Congress.

Armey takes his free-market ideology seriously enough to wear a tie emblazoned with the image of eighteenth-century free-market economist Adam Smith and is one of the few congressmen willing to take on almost any program. He favors phasing out Social Security, for example, and replacing it with alternatives in the private sector. Armey is regarded as intelligent and hardworking, but even some Republicans wonder if he’s too much of an ideologue to be effective. When asked about him, one Texas Republican political consultant simply sighed and said, “God, what an embarrassment.”

If Armey represents the intellectual edge of the conservative surge, Barton seems to have the most visceral anti-Washington bias. He has voted no almost as often as Armey, and he gives off the sense of a right-wing version of the Jimmy Stewart character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. While Boulter, Combest, and Sweeney, with largely agricultural districts, voted for loan relief for farmers, Barton voted against it. “One of the raps on me already is that I don’t pay much attention to the conventional political wisdom,” he says. “The conventional political wisdom is that the way you get reelected is, you do something called pork barrel. Well, number one, I’m not smart enough to explain away politically pragmatic votes, and number two, I don’t want to anyway. I’m thirty-five years old. I’m going to vote what I think is right. I’m going to stay in touch with the people that elected me and make sure that I take care of what their constituent needs are and two years from now, if they don’t agree with me, they can get ’em a political congressman.”

Barton has a huge amount of energy and seemingly ingenuous charm, but in a world where first impressions tend to stick, he’s in danger if being pigeonholed as a Gingrich acolyte. He did poorly in committee assignments, and like Armey, he may have a hard time being effective unless the Republican dissidents gain control of the party.

The freshman who has been the most successful thus far is probably Combest, the one who has made the least noise. Partly because of his service with Tower, he is viewed as the savviest of the six. He won the assignment he wanted on the House Agriculture Committee, where he is already thought of as one of its best-informed members. He’s also considered a protégé of Loeffler, the most influential Republican in the Texas delegation. With only a few months and a handful of votes behind them, it’s impossible to make definitive judgments, but there is some sentiment on both sides of the aisle that he has the brightest future of the six in Washington.

Boulter may be the biggest surprise. With his reedy voice and nervous demeanor, he has less in the way of superficial political skills than the others. But he has probed to be one of the most conspicuously successful freshmen so far. He won a major committee plum when he secured a seat on the House Budget Committee. Later, he and Florida congressman Connie Mack collected 146 Republican signatures on a petition telling President Reagan that they would back his veto of any legislation that increased taxes. Boulter, as much as any of the six, is a product of the religious New Right. “My main thrust here,” he says, “is to reform our laws around traditional Judeo-Christian family values.” But his voting record has been more flexible than might have been expected. Texas provided five of the only nineteen votes in the House against emergency food assistance to Ethiopia. Boulter and Combest were the only members of the Six-pack to vote for it. He has been active in COS without being seen as a creature of it. He has also gained a reputation in his district as a ferocious worker.

DeLay, like Combest, has managed to blend political instincts with conservative politics. “My opponent called me a right-wing crazy,” he says. “He called me an extremist, a right-wing extremist. I just thanked him for it.” But he was an effective mainstream legislator in Austin, and he has shown similar political skills in Washington. His biggest coup was to gain a seat as the only freshman on the GOP Committee on Committees, which helped select committee assignments. The position immediately made him the most influential member of his class.

Sweeney won the most surprising victory, upsetting Democrat Patman, a veteran of 24 years in South Texas politics. Sweeney also seems the most purely political of the six. At 29, he is the second-youngest member of the House, but he talks of his political experience as if he’s a wizened veteran. Clearly his most valuable attribute in Washington is raw energy and chutzpah. He won a seat on the prestigious Armed Services Committee by camping out on congressmen’s doorsteps at six in the morning to make his case. On the other hand, he has gained some notoriety for his problems in paying off $66,000 in unsecured personal bank loans that apparently skirted the edge of federal campaign laws.

When he describes his victory over Patman, he sounds like a political media planner plotting out campaign image strategy. “We were able to say, ‘When you read about Texas, this guy’s personified it. He’s a small-town boy with smalltown roots. He was a high school quarterback who put himself through college,’ that sort of junk. I’m part of that renewal of America’s belief in itself. People were empowered and emboldened in 1984 to believe that there was something better that America could become, and there was a regeneration of that hope and opportunity as opposed to the pessimism and despair that personified Jimmy Carter.” Maybe. But Sweeney’s race wasn’t the most uplifting one ever run. His campaign literature touted his background at the University of Texas law school and said his work had been published in the Texas Law Review. In fact, he dropped out of law school and never had anything published in the review. He dismisses Patman as “pretty slow-footed, pretty sleepy, a guy who never sponsored a major piece of legislation in a quarter century.” But besides his energetic campaigning, the main factors in his victory were the Reagan-Gramm sweep and a last-minute flood of Christian right-wing literature that badly distorted Patman’s voting record. “He’s very flexible,” says Patman. “I think he’d be a Chinese Communist if it would further his cause. I don’t think you can be in politics long without some measure of integrity, and I think he has none.”

If the Six-pack’s agendas are already becoming more diverse than their campaign rhetoric, it shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s one thing to ride a conservative wave when words like “budget cuts” have the allure of mystic incantations. It’s another to leap to make those cuts at the expense of your constituents. When last seen, Boulter was knocking on doors with a group of Panhandle oilmen who were in town lobbying to keep the current oil depletion allowance and deductions for intangible drilling costs.

The fact is, the House has never been a bastion of ideology. Even at a time of $180 billion budget deficits, Congress will spend at least $970 million this year. Armey and Barton may eschew any helpings of federal pork, but they’ll be in a distinct minority if they do. Current turmoil aside, the long-term question confronting the Six-pack is whether they’re betting on the right horses. The battle isn’t just between Democrats and Republicans. It’s also between the traditional Republicans, many of them—such as embattled House minority leader Bob Michel of Illinois—from the Frostbelt, and the Young Turks—like Gingrich—from the Sunbelt. If there’s a true realignment under way, the Texas delegation could become a powerhouse again, only a Republican one. Witness the five of its six freshmen who got plum committee assignments. Conversely, if the conservative tide ebbs, the Six-pack could look as dated as the early-seventies Democrats with modish long hair and sideburns, who saw the country turn the other way.

For now, the only sure result of the current rancor and guerrilla warfare in the House is that it’s almost impossible to get anything done—an odd strategy for Republicans swept into office to enact President Reagan’s programs. The only sure winner is Gingrich, who has gone from being a junior congressman to a national figure merely because if his facility for churning out inflammatory quotes.

But the biggest peril facing the Six-pack may not be Tip O’Neill or campaign debts or rapacious Democrats. It could be the First District of Texas, where a special election must be held to replace Democratic congressman Sam Hall, who is retiring to take a federal judgeship. If Republican Edd Hargett wins, he will become the seventh freshman Republican. After a few short, stormy months, the Six-pack would be out of business. Seven-Up, anyone?

Related Content