Freshman Rep. Chip Roy, who squeaked into office last year, has spent his first months in Congress establishing himself as a brash and unapologetic conservative — and someone who is utterly unconcerned about what his colleagues think of him.
The 46-year-old Texan was the lone Republican in May to block swift passage of a disaster-relief package for millions of Americans, including those in Texas. In recent weeks, he has spent several nights sitting in a mostly empty House chamber demanding roll-call votes on dozens of uncontroversial amendments in what he billed as an attempt to prod Congress into addressing the crisis at the Southern border.
The practical effect of Roy’s campaign was to delay the passage of a pair of Democratic spending bills, detain lawmakers of both parties on the House floor for several marathon voting sessions, and generate plaudits for himself in the conservative media as well as gripes on the House floor.
“This is an exercise in representative democracy designed to make lots of noise and not much else,” groused Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) amid a two-hour vote series.
Roy has quickly earned a reputation as a lawmaker who is unconcerned about annoying his colleagues and, in the eyes of some observers, about retaining a seat that he won by 2.6 percentage points last fall.
“I think it’s really important that the people in this town not get comfortable that they can just kind of move through business and not solve the issue of the day,” Roy said in an interview last week. “I get that it causes some pain; I understand that. I don’t take joy in that, but I’m not bothered by it, either.”
Moments later, Roy walked onto the House floor to make an obscure procedural motion that forced an unplanned roll-call vote and delayed amendment debate for more than an hour.
But those tactics — as well as Roy’s previous move to single-handedly delay passage of a $19 billion disaster-aid bill backed by many of his fellow Texas Republicans — have also fueled questions about whether his hard-edge approach is putting at risk a seat that has been in Republican hands for 40 years.
Following veteran Rep. Lamar Smith’s retirement, Roy emerged from an 18-candidate GOP primary and narrowly beat Democrat Joseph Kopser in November’s midterm elections. He won with strong backing from political action committees affiliated with the Club for Growth and the House Freedom Caucus, a group that he has since joined and whose confrontational tactics he has fully embraced.
“He’s a sharp guy, and he’s not afraid to step forward and lead,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of the group’s co-founders, who stood alongside Roy and other conservative hard-liners at a news conference pushing for action on the border.
But few Freedom Caucus members had as close a race as Roy, and Democrats have taken notice. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has moved Roy’s seat up its target list, and a well-known Texas Democrat with proven fundraising potential — former state senator Wendy Davis — is mulling a 2020 challenge in a district that could be swinging away from Republicans.
“It’s a growing district with people who are not ideologically extreme, so it’s been a surprise that he’s taken some of the most right-wing positions in the Congress,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) who represents a neighboring San Antonio district.
Roy brushes off his narrow victory in 2018 as a side effect of the unusually robust and well-funded Senate campaign of former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D). And he professes to be not at all concerned about Davis, who represented a Fort Worth district and won national notice in 2013 by mounting a filibuster against abortion restrictions.
“If Wendy Davis wants to run, she’s welcome to run,” Roy said. “If the [Democrats] want to pile up a big pile of money in the streets of Austin and light it on fire coming after me, they’re welcome to do so.”
After Roy blocked the disaster-aid bill, the DCCC immediately launched a digital ad campaign highlighting the move, which delayed approval of reconstruction funding for victims of Hurricane Harvey, among other calamities. Roy, in turn, sent fundraising solicitations to his supporters off the Democratic attacks.
“The Swamp is angry,” one email read, warning that donations “will pour into the district from liberal hotbeds like Manhattan, Hollywood, and San Francisco.”
The irony is that Roy probably owes his seat in Congress to the national network of conservative activists he built ties to as a senior aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), including serving as his chief of staff during the 2013 government shutdown. Outside spending from the Club for Growth, in particular, helped Roy emerge from the crowded GOP primary and, later, to counter Kopser’s campaign fundraising advantage. His alliance with Cruz remains strong.
“Chip, like millions of Americans, is frustrated that so many career politicians in Washington refuse to do their jobs,” Cruz said last week. “He understands well the many procedural levers that a member has to fight for his or her constituents, and Chip is fearless, which is a rare quality in the United States Capitol.”
Roy is held in less esteem elsewhere in the Republican Party. Praise from another former boss of Roy’s, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), was somewhat less glowing. “I believe in having necessary fights that actually accomplish things,” he said, “and I think Chip has the best of intentions.”
Ultimately, Roy suspended his roll-call tactics strategy last week after Democrats moved toward agreement on a border-aid bill, but Democrats scoff at any suggestion that Roy’s tactics have done anything to advance that process.
During floor debate Wednesday, with Roy’s antics in full swing, House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) openly mocked Roy on the floor — noting that his antics had delayed a resolution to the border funding debate by interrupting negotiations.
“One of the things I’ve learned about this place is that we have a lot of people who like to embrace the theater of Washington . . . people who know that issues are about to be solved but who then stand up and demand that it gets solved, so that when it gets solved, they can take a bow and take credit,” McGovern said. “No deal is coming to a conclusion because of the theatrics on this House floor.”
Roy said he endured some “good-natured ribbing” from colleagues during those marathon vote sessions. But he said he will not shy away from using unusual tactics because they might put off his colleagues.
“I’m sure I’m off a couple of Christmas card lists,” he said. “But I’m sure I’m on a few new ones, so that’s good.”