To understand the bonds among Texas representatives, you have to understand Texas. But you also have to understand another thing: lunch.
Every week, Texas House members gather with their colleagues to share a meal and discuss their issues. The Democrats meet on Wednesdays — a tradition that apparently dates back to former Speaker Sam Rayburn, D-Texas. But while Democrats supply their own lunch for their meeting, the real fun — the real bonding — it seems, happens on Thursdays with the Republicans.
Ever since 1985, when the so-called Texas six-pack came to Congress, Texas Republicans have met on Thursday afternoons for a meal that the dean of the delegation, Joe L. Barton, described as “one of the highlights of the week.”
Barton unofficially leads the Republican lunch, or “kinda kicks things off,” as Rep. Randy Weber put it. (“We pretty much have a roundtable discussion,” Weber said.)
Texas is not the only delegation to meet every week. Many do. The entire Nebraska delegation, for instance, meets every Wednesday morning. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., told CQ Roll Call the Cornhuskers thought it was necessary because they’re a small delegation. “And so a large delegation like Texas, if they do it, that’s a pretty big deal,” Terry said. “For us to do it, that’s just survival.”
The Republican representatives rotate who buys lunch and they change up where they meet. But this much is constant: They try to make the meal as Texan as possible.
They mostly have barbecue (from Hill Country, naturally, because of its Texas roots), but they also enjoy Mexican, burgers and other selections.
Just don’t bring Popeyes chicken. Barton made that mistake once, and he still can’t live it down.
“Yeah, that was out of line,” Rep. Michael McCaul said with a laugh. “We had to gavel him down with that one.”
Kevin Brady, who called the Popeyes “pretty lame, really,” offered a slippery slope indictment of Barton’s selection from the Louisiana kitchen.
“Next thing you know we’ll be eating quiche,” Brady said.
Barton, in his defense, said all he knew was there wasn’t any Popeyes left at the end of the lunch. “Whatever flak I took it wasn’t from lack of interest in eating the food,” he said.
The razzing seem to be just as much a part of the lunch as the food itself. “We sometimes poke fun at each other, I mean it is, after all — for lack of a better term — a pretty tight fraternity,” Weber said, though he noted that the members give a lot of “deference” to the only female Texas Republican, Kay Granger.
“She’s such a classy lady,” Weber said.
But that doesn’t mean Granger is toning down the caloric value when it’s her turn to buy lunch.
“I don’t think anybody, even Kay Granger, provides what would be called truly health food,” Barton said.
Notwithstanding Barton’s Popeyes, whether it’s Hill Country or Tortilla Coast — or the ribs Louie Gohmert used to make before the Architect of the Capitol shut down his balcony barbecue operation — the food is generally steeped in saturated fats. It is, according to Barton, “all the stuff you’re not supposed to eat.”
And members love it. They try to outdo each other in what they provide, like when Steve Stockman went the extra mile by supplying burgers and We, the Pizza — just because.
But the real way to outdo your colleagues, members said, was to out-Texas them, hence why Hill Country is such a popular choice.
The Penn Quarter-based barbecue joint takes care to make the dining experience as Texas possible. Beyond the Shiner beer on tap and the Gruene, Texas, neon signs, Hill Country ships in its meat and the Post Oak wood used to smoke that meat from Texas, and ships the chefs out to Texas.
According to McCaul, the member who claims he first brought the Hill Country for lunch, “it’s probably the closest thing we have to Texas barbecue up here,” meaning it’ll do the job, but is still, perhaps, not Texas enough.
If any restaurant can make their process more Texas, they’d probably find a spike in the delivery business on Thursday afternoons.
As Weber put it, seeming to sum up the lunch preferences of many Lone Star Republicans, “I like anything that’s from Texas.”
And to top off the Texas Republicans’ meal, they have a Texas dessert: Blue Bell ice cream, shipped in from Brenham. “I don’t know that there are any abstainers in the Blue Bell,” Barton said.
Barton first brought the Blue Bell more than 20 years ago, but it wasn’t until John Culberson forgot to bring lunch one day as a freshman in 2001 that the Blue Bell became a staple.
“My atonement was I would always have Blue Bell ice cream there,” Culberson said, who noted that the duty had been passed on to more junior members since.
Blue Bell’s motto screams Texas: “We eat all we can and sell the rest.” And if you ask Texas Republican Ted Poe, it ought to be the motto of America’s foreign energy policy. (He recently said as much on the House floor.)
But that’s pretty much the most direct line you can draw from the lunch to policy.
“It’s just more of a social gathering than it is policy or politically oriented,” Barton said. “But we do talk policy, we do talk politics.”
It’s just that policy stuff doesn’t — “dudn’t,” in Barton’s east Texas drawl — dominate the discussion. “When there’s a big issue comin’ up, we do sometimes try to develop a Texas position on it,” Barton said. “And when individual members have specific problems or projects, we give them the floor to let them discuss it. Stuff like that.”
While the lunch may seem light on policy, members pointed to it as an integral part of what it means to be a Texas Republican.
When Brady missed a lunch as a freshman, the senior Texas senator at the time, Phil Gramm, called him up and told him, according to Brady: “‘You know, these aren’t optional. This is what Texans do.’”
Brady added: “So, from the very first part, it was instilled in me we meet every Thursday, we meet together. So, yeah, I love it. You got a family.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.