WASHINGTON – In his farewell speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, retiring U.S. Rep. Ted Poe jokingly quoted an old adage from one of the most famous Texans ever.
"So this is where the cowboy rides away, Mr. Speaker," the Houston Republican said. "Also, at the end, there is really no better good-bye than the words of Davy Crockett when he left Congress, when he said, affectionately: 'You may all go to hell, I am going to Texas.'"
Poe and eight other members of the Texas delegation are set to exit their offices in Washington on Thursday. Together, they represent one-quarter of the state's delegation in the U.S. House and nearly two centuries of combined congressional experience. The departures include multiple committee chairmen and members whose tenures date back to President Ronald Reagan’s second term.
The Texas Tribune interviewed seven of the nine Texas members departing Congress and asked them to reflect on their time in Washington. U.S. Reps. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, and John Culberson, R-Houston, declined requests for interviews for this story.
Barton is the delegation's longest serving member, having entered Congress in 1985. A few years into his tenure in the late 1980s, he got a postcard from a little boy telling him that his older brother had recently been killed in a three-wheeled ATV accident in his front yard.
“I called his mother, got him on the phone and talked about it,” Barton said. “And as a consequence of that, I led the effort that resulted...The ATV industry entered into a consent decree with the Justice Department and took those three-wheelers off the market.”
Moments like that were among the best parts of serving in Congress, Barton said.
“You’re proud when you’re able to say ‘I helped that person,’” Barton said. “A congressman can be moved by an individual and can change the world for the better, and that’s an example of that happening.”
Sessions' favorite memory came about a decade after the Dallas Republican came to Washington in 1997. Sessions was in the Oval Office with his son, Alex, who has Down syndrome.
“President [George W.] Bush said ‘Alex, how are you?’ and Alex said, ‘thank you for helping with the bill,'" Sessions recalled. "President Bush didn’t know a damn thing about it.”
The bill was one Sessions had been working on for families with disabled children who made too much money to qualify for Medicaid. Sessions wanted to give those families the ability to buy into Medicaid after he received a letter from a family with a son with Down syndrome and a severe heart condition. The family's income was just above the maximum threshold to qualify for government assistance. The boy later passed away.
Sessions explained to Bush the bill that his son was talking about.
"He was so touched...and the president went and actually said to his staff 'tell me what it is,'" Sessions said. "And they actually followed up with him and said ‘this would be a good idea.’”
In 2006, Bush signed the “Family Opportunity Act” bill into law. Sessions considers it his top legislative accomplishment.
A lack of civility
For two other Texas Republicans, the decision to leave office was made easier by Republican conference rules that limit chairmen from serving more than six years as the party’s top member on a committee. U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, who is finishing up his 16th year in Congress, is the current chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith has chaired three committees during his 32 years in Congress: ethics, judiciary, and science, space and technology – where he is currently term-limited.
“I face the bleak prospect of wandering the halls aimlessly,” said Smith. “I didn’t want to be in that position.”
Hensarling, Poe, Smith and U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Richardson, all decried and pointed to a growing lack of respect for opposing viewpoints as what has changed for the worst during their time in Congress.
“Judgements are made before you get to know someone,” Johnson, who has served since 1991, said in an email. “And reaching across the aisle is something you don’t see much of anymore.”
Smith said that the members of all parties should work harder to not "take another member's name in vain."
"Talk about the issues, not the person,” Smith said.
Poe shared a similar sentiment.
“There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing, absolutely nothing wrong with debating issues and getting excited about it,” Poe said. “But then, I mean specifically the lack of civility, it’s become personal and disrespectful of what we’re supposed to be doing up here in Congress.”
On the flip side, Poe and Johnson both said that the way Americans and the government treated veterans and military issues has improved during their time in Congress.
“During the Vietnam War, many Americans weren’t supportive of our military, and many of my fellow veterans...were treated with open hostility,” said Johnson, who spent nearly seven years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam’s infamous Hanoi Hilton. “I’m thankful that Americans have recognized how harmful that attitude can be, and that our troops and veterans today are treated with respect – regardless of political opinions.”
Aside from institutional improvements over his time in Congress, Hensarling jokingly said that the quality of the barbecue has improved at the weekly gathering of Texas lawmakers.
“The barbecue at the weekly Texas lunch is really good these days,” Hensarling said. “When I first came here we didn’t have Blue Bell – now we do. When I first came here, we didn’t have Collin Street Bakery Pecan Pies – now we do. An army marches on its stomach.”
On a more serious note, Hensarling said what’s changed for the better during his tenure is the ability to make law under the Trump administration, especially in his position as a committee chair.
“The founders made it very difficult to make law,” Hensarling said. “So when you do it, it’s a big accomplishment.”
Hensarling pointed to Congress rolling back some banking regulations passed in response to the 2008 financial crisis, and overhauling the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., which is tasked with reviewing the national security implications of foreign investment in the United States.
“I’ve got a nice collection of signing pens that my children can fight over one day once I've assumed room temperature," Hensarling said.
Hensarling also said that if he could change one thing about how Congress functioned, he would amend the U.S. Constitution to restrain federal spending to a percentage of gross domestic product. He said his "greatest fear" as he leaves Congress is the national debt. He characterized his tenure in Congress as fighting against increased federal spending – “clearly not successfully since the national debt has almost tripled on my watch – to which I’m greatly disturbed.”
Sessions, the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee – a position through which he served at the pleasure of the speaker – said he wished he could’ve done more to control federal spending.
“It’s all rising because of our programs. We have social programs that we do not need,” Sessions said. “And I have been disappointed that I have been not been able to change those models better and that is the biggest regret that I have.”
Poe said the one thing he would change about Congress would instituting a requirement that Congress pass its budgets every year. This year marked the first time in a decade that Congress passed the Department of Defense budget on time. The story was similar for other agencies, while others are still being funding through temporary spending bills.
Poe told the Tribune that his top legislative accomplishment during his 14 years was the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, a 2015 bill that helped police fight human trafficking, as well as aided victims in their recovery.
But Poe’s favorite memory from his 14 years in Washington came when fellow Texan President George W. Bush was in the White House.
“I enjoyed driving my ‘98 Jeep Wrangler with a lift, flowmaster and six floodlights over to the White House when President Bush was president and I was able to park it on the driveway – not in the back, in the front,” Poe said. “President Bush didn’t seem to mind. Although before I left, I did leave a little Texas oil on the driveway of the White House.”
In terms of legislating, U.S. Rep. Gene Green, a Houston Democrat who is retiring after 26 years in Congress, said he’s going to miss the fine art of negotiating with members on contentious issues, sometimes over longer periods than anyone expected.
“Typically, when members come to a committee...you’re full of vinegar, you want to sit and make your place,” Green said. “After a while you’ll realize that to be successful...you have to work across the lines. And I like that when at the end of the month or six months or maybe even years, you finally come together and say ‘this is what we’re trying to do.’”
But House rules do not inherently facilitate bipartisanship, leaving it up to the members of the majority party to actually involve the minority party in deliberations. In the House, minority members have limited capabilities to delay or block legislation.
Barton has served 20 years in the majority and 14 in the minority. He said that if he could change one thing about the House as an institution, he would give the minority party increased legislative rights, an interesting answer from a former chairman who spent most of his time in the majority. His first decade in Congress was spent in the minority, during which said he didn’t get a single vote on one of his amendments.
“In the House, the majority rules and it’s at the whim of the speaker and the committee chairman (to decide) how much influence the minority has,” Barton said. “My first ten years... I wouldn’t say it was tyrannical but it was very authoritarian. So we came in in ‘95 and claimed we were going to reform the process and we did to some extent, but over time immediate expediency almost always trumps (an) absolute, fair process.”
Contrary to Barton’s view, Texas’ three current departing chairmen – Hensarling, Sessions and Smith – all expressed frustration with the power the minority party wields in the U.S. Senate, specifically the filibuster. Hensarling called it “anti-majoritarian” and said it “stymied” Congress’ ability to pass law. Sessions said that the Senate filibuster and cloture process – a 60-vote threshold that limits debate in the Senate and can end a filibuster – “holds up this body.”
“It’s a little frustrating to watch the Senate, where one senator can basically stop any amendment or any bill, any consideration of any bill, just by picking up the phone in their office and voicing their objection,” Smith said. “Then that requires sixty votes in order for that bill or amendment to move forward. And getting sixty votes is a high hurdle that is seldom cleared.”
The departing Texas lawmakers all expressed excitement to be returning to Texas to spend more time with their families. Yet some of them don't expect to stop working.
“I’m not going to be sitting on the porch in a rocking chair with my favorite Dalmation sitting next to me,” Poe said.
He added, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but it’ll be in Texas – get back to the promise land.”