For most of us, the idea of escaping the gray grip of winter for a little fun in the sun sounds lovely. With meteorologists promising once-in-a-century low temperatures and deep snows, who wouldn’t at least daydream about flying someplace warm? If you can afford it, why not just do it?
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is learning why not the hard way right now. As a freeze descended on his normally warm-weathered state, knocking out power generators and plunging millions into darkness, Cruz sought the sunshine of Mexico.
But there are certain things you give up for a life in politics and all the power that comes with it, like anonymity and the ability to jet off without anyone noticing. Photos of a Cancun-bound Cruz spread online, and soon the Republican was caught in a different kind of storm.
No one denies the optics are bad for Cruz. It looks a little cold-hearted, at best, to work on your tan while your constituents are literally freezing to death. Still, what’s a member of Congress — a lawmaker — supposed to do about an unfolding natural disaster?
Some conservatives came to Cruz’s defense. On Twitter, Erick Erickson wrote: “The fact that people think Ted Cruz, a United States Senator, can do anything about a state power grid, even his own, is rather demonstrative of the ignorance of so many people who cover politics. They’d rather performative drama than substance.”
His fellow right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza also applauded Cruz’s decision to skip town. “What could @tedcruz do if he were here in Texas? I’m hard-pressed to say. If he’s in Cancun, that means he’s not using up valuable resources of energy, food and water that can now be used by someone else. This is probably the best thing he could do for the state right now.”
But according to former congressional staff, there’s plenty members can do during weather crises to help out their constituents.
First off, said a former staffer for a Senate Republican, Cruz should have remembered the other crisis Texas finds itself mired in: the coronavirus. “He shouldn’t be travelling!” she said, speaking anonymously to avoid tanking her career. “We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, like my God!”
With Cruz’s office confirming he quickly flew back to Texas, the staffer said he shouldn’t make things worse by then rubbing elbows with first responders and victims in an attempt to fix his PR problem. “You’re putting people in Texas in danger,” she said, referring to Cruz. “You were just potentially exposed, out doing riskier behaviors, and now you’re going to go into shelters or warming stations or around people who maybe don’t have the vaccine like you have access to?”
Beyond not being a disease vector, members of Congress can find other ways to keep busy — by doing what they do all the time, serving constituents.
“Eighty percent — maybe even more — of the staff in any given office in the Senate or the House do constituent services,” said Sawyer Hackett, a former communications staffer for Rep. David Price of North Carolina. “In a storm like this people call a congressional office to figure out how to get their power back on, their road plowed, their kids’ school reopened.”
Hackett described how hurricanes hitting North Carolina were all-hands-on-deck situations for Price’s office — it didn’t matter what your title was, you were working the phones to help residents get answers. At the center of it was Price, leading the office.
When Tennessee faced some floods about a decade ago, Emily Phelps was a press secretary for then-Rep. Bart Gordon. The entire office was put to work coordinating with the federal agencies on the ground — FEMA, the Small Business Administration and the Department of Agriculture. “I was on calls as a comms person helping to get the word out to the folks in the district about what federal emergency loans and emergency grants and services were available,” Phelps said.
Now, congressional offices don’t necessarily need congressmen to run — in normal situations, a member can take a week off leaving things in the capable hands of their chief of staff. But there are still things a senator can do that their staff can’t.
A Senate staffer’s call to the Department of Housing and Urban Development about some emergency shelters can sometimes go unanswered; a senator’s call never does. “He gets the secretary,” said Hackett, who also once worked for HUD.
“As soon as federal agencies are engaged, House and Senate offices and the lawmakers themselves do a ton to liaise between the agencies and folks on the ground,” said Phelps. “This is a life-and-death emergency in an enormous state, and you’d want your most senior person available to make a phone call and help if there's the smallest hiccup at any level.”
Senators especially can play a role coordinating federal emergency relief with state and local efforts, said Murshed Zaheed, who worked for former-Sen. Harry Reid. “In situations like this Reid would have played the role of a federal quarterback that would connect the work of a — whether Democratic or Republican — White House with all the state-based resources,” he said.
That could mean “simple things, like making sure all the homeless shelters are adequately resourced and have access to all the materials that FEMA is getting out,” he added.
While House members may have a closer connection to people in their districts, senators are typically bigger names and have more pull.
Cruz isn’t the first politician to get caught having fun while his constituents suffered. New York Democrat Charles E. Schumer was sightseeing in Europe when Hurricane Irene walloped the Catskills in 2011 and left half a million people without electricity.
And there was a time, not too long ago, that no one expected federal politicians to swoop in after every storm of a certain size. President Dwight D. Eisenhower vacationed through some of the worst hurricanes on record with nary a comment — dealing with that, after all, was a job for state and local governments. But that began to change under Lyndon B. Johnson and the influence of TV, which beamed each disaster into living rooms across the nation. Every flooded American street, every blown-down American home was a catastrophe befalling an American neighbor.
Even without those changed expectations, this still would have looked bad for Cruz, said the former staffer to a Senate Republican. Her parents live outside Dallas and lost power Wednesday night. For dinner, they heated up a can of soup over a portable Coleman grill. “They are both in their sixties — I don’t need my parents freezing and having to heat up dinners outside on a camp stove,” she said. “When you see that juxtaposed with someone going on vacation it’s like … oh my God.”