THE LIMESTONE STEPS LEADING TO the Cloak Room, a bar in the basement of Austin’s 117-year-old Goodman Building, descend from a spot barely thirty paces from the west lawn of the state capitol building. They are marked only by a small sign tucked behind a crape myrtle and a hand pointing the way down that is painted on the wall above the top step, quiet indicators of the final leg of the shortest walk to a public watering hole that a politico has during the five months the Legislature convenes in Austin. It’s a hike many elected officials, their staffs, and the lobbyists who woo them are only too happy to take. In the early weeks of a legislative session, the Cloak Room is a place to renew old friendships and make new ones, where add-ons to the session’s expanded staffs can visit with lawmakers freshly arrived in Austin, and they can all share a drink with the lobbyists who will be seeking their favor in the coming months.
But as the session wears on, as Capitol business starts running into the night and the Austin heat starts having its fun with people who have chosen careers that require pantyhose and suits, the bar becomes something more. Then, it’s a place where a lobbyist who just watched her bill die in committee can buy a member a drink and feel like she’s gotten something accomplished on an otherwise dismal day. It’s where a senator’s chief of staff, dressed down that morning for misspeaking to the press, might finally get the phone number of a girl in the Speaker’s office he’s had a crush on all session. It’s where D’s can go to gripe about R’s, where staff can go to gripe about the boss, and where the lot of them can gather—at least about fifty at a time—to celebrate or lament another day at the Lege. In the words of lobbyist Robert Johnson, one of a handful of people willing to talk about the Cloak Room and let his name appear in print: “It’s a place where you can drink a beer with somebody and apologize for having to stick a bill up his rear end that day. It’s where you prove that it’s nothing personal.”
It’s a cozy spot in which to do it, a narrow room with five stools and video poker at the bar on the left, and a row of tables and video golf against the wall on the right. There are mirrors and polished, dark-brown wood paneling on the walls. An architectural drawing of the Capitol hangs on the wall across from the bar. Two televisions show legislative proceedings when the chambers are meeting and sports when they’re not, but their sound is mostly drowned out by a jukebox and the rolling chatter of serious drinkers. It’s impossibly dark and smoky, even when the door is left open on a sunny afternoon.
When the room is packed with its mid-session, white-collar crowd, it looks like the quintessential dealmaking, smoke-filled back room. But the Cloak Room’s role in the lawmaking process is, paradoxically, a little simpler and a whole lot more complicated. On the one hand, it’s just a friendly tavern across the street from a large employer, a convenient stop-off on the way home from work where people with fast-paced, high-pressure jobs can let off some steam. And like most friendly taverns, it is governed by certain hard and fast rules of conduct. Rule number one is that what goes on in the Cloak Room stays in the Cloak Room, and on any given night it’s easy to see how important that rule is. I can recall evenings in the bar watching House members and lobbyists slow-dance to Barry White on the jukebox, overhearing a high-placed Democratic party functionary cuss the party membership for blaming her for last November’s losses, and marveling at a pair of young lovers who returned weak in the knees from a brief second honeymoon in the ladies’ room. This is not the sort of thing that patrons of the bar want to read about themselves in the newspapers the next day. “It’s just a little come-and-go,” said former state senator Carl Parker, who still gets in once a week or so when his lobbying duties bring him to Austin from his Port Arthur home. “But the Capitol during session becomes all-consuming. It’s like that reality show where the kids are all stuck in the same house. They live together, eat together, work together, fight together—and they can’t get out. They need a place where they can drink together, where they can unwind at least a little. That’s the Cloak Room.”
But the bar’s real contribution to the governance of Texas is providing a room, as cramped as it may be, for the lobby to rub shoulders with members and staff and form the friendships that are often the real engines of politics. The Cloak Room may not house any of the gears of democracy, but it provides a good deal of the grease. While any good lobbyist sees the futility of shouting over a Kool and the Gang song to suggest alternative wording for pending legislation, he knows too that hanging out with a staffer on Wednesday night could mean a foot in a legislator’s door on Thursday morning.
That, more than the sort of high-powered wheeling and dealing you find at quieter spots like the Austin Club or the Four Seasons Hotel bar, is the hallmark of the Cloak Room. There are, of course, exceptions. Some inside baseball is played here. If somebody needs to talk about a bill with one of the handful of legislators who qualify as regulars, this is a sure place to find him. In 2001, when state representative Fred Bosse carried the legislation that would determine the future of the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, interested parties knew that most nights they could buy him a beer at the Cloak Room and tell him their thoughts. In 1997 a