Across miles and miles of Texas—not to mention parts of the southern and eastern United States—Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke of El Paso and Republican Will Hurd of Helotes have been on a bipartisan road trip from San Antonio to Washington, D.C. The “Congressional Cannonball Run” started as a simple alternative form of travel after Southwest Airlines cancelled flights because a major snowstorm hit the nation’s capital. But it turned into a rolling town hall and internet sensation: “Will and Beto’s Totally Awesome Road Trip,” “A ‘Bipartisan Road Trip’ from Texas to Washington,” and “Reps. O’Rourke, Hurd Livestream Road Trip,” to name just a few.
O’Rourke was a supporter of Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential election. Hurd, a former CIA agent, thought Clinton should be jailed for using an outside email server while secretary of state. But they also have abutting congressional districts along the Rio Grande that have large populations of active and retired military personnel. So they decided a road trip would give them a chance to use Facebook to connect with voters and talk policy, not politics. The result has been a whirlwind of publicity in a nation more used to Democrats and Republicans at each other’s throats.
Hurd and O’Rourke gave me a call on Wednesday from their rented Chevy Impala as they were about to cross from Tennessee into Virginia, in search of truth and something to eat. They were facing a deadline of reaching the U.S. House by 6:30 p.m.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Will Hurd: R.G., Will Hurd and Beto O’Rourke. How are you doing?
RGR: I’m doing good. How are you doing at this point?
WH: We’re doing fantastic, man. We’re in Virginia. We’re close to our destination.
RGR: I may be giving my age away, but in all the songs you’ve been playing, have you played Steppenwolf or “Radar Love“?
Beto O’Rourke: We have not played “Radar Love,” but that may be in my top 20 songs of all time. Is that Golden Earring? We gotta get some “Radar Love” on.
RGR: Y’all may have said this, but what is the 6:30 deadline?
BO: The first day that Congress, that the House is back in session each week, there is a 6:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time vote typically on suspension bills that require a supermajority to pass and therefore are not controversial. They are post office re-namings. They’re everyone loves dogs and cats. You know easy, no-brainer, feel good bills. The tough work, something like an accountability bill for the VA [Veterans Administration], or Second Amendment, gun safety, suicide prevention discussion around veterans and guns, those bills require a majority and have rules associated with them to allow for greater debate and take more time. So those are on the other days. So while we are rushing back, if we were to miss …
WH: We’re not, we’re not going to miss.
BO: … we’d be missing renaming a post office or a VA center or something.
RGR: But that post office, if it was in your district, it would be important, wouldn’t it?
BO: It would, and to my knowledge there are no post offices in either of our districts to be renamed. But there’s nothing to worry about because we’re going to be there.
RGR: As you’ve gone along, has there been anything that has happened or that y’all have talked about where one of you has changed your mind because of what the other one was saying.
BO: I’ve been thinking about that, and I had a little bit of a hard time going to sleep last night because I thought Will and I are doing a good job of describing our approach and what we’re thinking about issues. I don’t know if one has brought the other over or if both have met in the middle or something. I don’t know because so many of these issues I’ve never talked to Will about. I don’t know if he’s moving on them or I’m moving on them. But we talked this morning about accountability in the VA, and we talked about a hiring freeze. As you probably know, the president and administration’s position is that we need a federal hiring freeze, at least for a while. I’m somebody who thinks a federal hiring freeze hurts organizations like the VA, who, while they have some exempt positions, are still unable to bring the necessary people in. It already takes forever to hire someone at the VA. So making it harder for a medical center director to bring somebody in is not good. So I was surprised to learn that Will also opposes a federal hiring freeze, and then Will was arguing for greater accountability.
WH: I thought the activity with the hiring freeze would make sense especially with improved ability to hire and fire. That’s an example of where we moved closer. Then Beto has some legislation that I’m probably going to get on. I’m going to review it when I get back, the American Families United bill.
RGR: I guess it helps that both of y’all have large military bases.
BO: Sure, we’re meting with service members, their families, and the veterans and military retirees in our communities. A lot of folks assume that members of Congress, and they shouldn’t, know the needs of all their constituents or the best ideas for the best bills to address them. We get our best ideas by listening to the people we represent directly.
WH: Wait one second. Do you want to do Wendy’s?
BO: Sure, I’ll do Wendy’s.
WH: We’ve got Wendy’s or Chick-fil-A or Starbucks.
BO: You call it.
WH: Let’s do Wendy’s.
BO: We’re going to do Wendy’s.
WH: Sorry. We didn’t realize what time it is. Time is tight. We’ve got to get some food in us and keep rolling. Sorry. Next question.
RGR: Next question. About forty years ago, Republicans and Democrats in Congress used to fight it out on the floor and then go play golf together or drink together in the afternoon. But in recent years there’s a perception that there is a zero-sum game. Do you think y’all’s road trip is doing something to change the perception or change the idea of you win, I lose; I win, you lose idea?
WH: I sure hope so.
BO: I think so. Look, you realize you need to do it more often. There will be some congressional delegations where you spend time with a lot of people, getting solid one on one time. When we do the Congressional Cannonball Run, this is something that will increase that access. It’s a reminder that we have more in common when we speak. When you have conversations, you build understanding. Where is that Chick-fil-A?
WH: We can eat at Chick-fil-A.
BO: It’s not in immediate eyesight. R.G., you still there?
RGR: Yeah, I was just waiting for you to figure out where the Chick-fil-A was.
BO: We each did a double Whataburger cheeseburger yesterday, and as much as I can always eat a hamburger, going through this Wendy’s line, this may be a hamburger too far.
RGR: You’ve gotten on this road trip and been able to talk things out. What ways can other members of Congress cross this partisan divide?
BO: You kind of referenced this. In the old days, members of Congress moved their families up to Washington, D.C. Their kids went to the same schools. They played golf together. They coached each other’s soccer teams. The focus now is primarily around getting re-elected and raising money for your own party so that they can run campaigns against your colleagues and knock them out of office and elect more of your own party—for very understandable reasons. As a Democrat, I want to be in the majority.
Will, are we getting out of this line? We just made a bipartisan decision to leave this Wendy’s and go to Chick-fil-A.
So, yeah, I don’t know that you get there until you change the priorities in Congress. Folks are so focused on re-election and on raising money for that or to help their buddies or their party committee on re-election that they just don’t have time and in fact are sometimes punished for hanging out with or helping the guy on the other side.
The only way I know to get something done is to work with Republicans, because they are the majority in the House, the majority in the Senate, they are the majority in the White House. If I just wait until we win an election where we are in a majority, then I may be waiting past my time to help someone. We’ve got to change campaign finance, too much big money. We’ve got to end perpetual re-election and set term limits. These are my ideas. I don’t know if Will shares them. And we’ve got to get more competition in electing members of Congress. So let’s end the gerrymandering.
WH: If more districts were like mine that were 50-50, then you don’t have to worry about term limits, because you’d have someone more in tune with those districts. You have every two years you’re running in the House. And, yeah, there’s a whole lot of money in politics. If we could take half that money and put it into education, we’d be a lot better off. R.G., thanks a bunch, man, but we’ve got to run.
With our goodbyes, they were gone on down the road. But I really think it meant they’d found lunch.
To listen to all of it, click here. Videos from their trip can be found at Congressman Beto O’Rourke and U.S. Representative Will Hurd’s Facebook pages. FYI, they made it to the Capitol with minutes to spare.