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.