WASHINGTON — A hundred days never felt so long.
On Saturday, President Donald Trump will complete his first 100 days in office, the symbolic traditional end to the "honeymoon phase" of a commander-in-chief’s administration, and that period has exhausted, exasperated and enthralled members and staffers in Texas' congressional delegation. The last three months produced drama and turmoil — and a handful of political wins for both parties — unlike any stretch anyone can seem to recall.
“Every day is exciting,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, a sunny Republican from the Woodlands. As chairman of the House tax-writing committee, he is at the center of many of the frenzies — including trade deals and the overhauls of the country’s health care system and tax policy.
“Someone advised me to write a book,” he said. “The problem is, I told him, every day would be a new chapter.”
The issues Brady and the other 37 members of the delegation faced since Trump took office are dizzying: investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, a proposed shakeup of the North American Free Trade Agreement that lasted all of 12 hours, a Muslim ban that ran into judicial buzzsaws (twice), concern over North Korean nuclear arms, a presidential threat to the Texas-manufactured F-35 and the United States’ use of force in Syria.
Every Texan in the delegation has served on a committee or taken a vote that, at least for a day or two, was the center of a political storm.
Washington is not used to spontaneity. Capitol Hill runs on seasons and rhythms — certain pieces of legislation are expected to come up at different times of year. But Trump’s legislative team is unaware of these mores, and the president appears to have a showman's penchant for suspense and cliffhangers.
The result has been a collective disorientation when Congress is in session. On any given afternoon, several pivotal issues could blow up, unleashing worry and confusion, only to fade away hours later.
For instance, on Wednesday, the main priority for Congress was to pass a spending bill and prevent a government shutdown on Saturday. But the Trump administration began pushing a rollout of a tax code overhaul, revived health care talks — and then leaked a proposal to terminate NAFTA.
The NAFTA legislation, in particular, struck a nerve among the Texans. Such a policy change would cause a major upheaval in the Texas economy.
By late Wednesday, the Trump White House issued a statement backing off of the notion. By Thursday, Washington had moved on and NAFTA drama was long forgotten.
“If I had one word to describe it … chaos,” said U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, a Brownsville Democrat, on Wednesday.
Freshman U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington, a Lubbock Republican, was one of the most frustrated Texans when the GOP health care overhaul fell apart in late March.
“While I was disappointed and somewhat discouraged when I came out of that week where they pulled back the vote, we lived to negotiate another day,” he said.
His fellow freshman, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, acknowledged the charged atmosphere.
"It feels like a crazy time ... I wouldn’t be able to tell because I don’t have anything to compare it to, but certainly I hope this isn’t the normal,” the McAllen Democrat said.
He expects the House's GOP majority to continue to struggle.
“I think a lot of things will get through the house but end up [stopped by] the Senate, and I think we’ll be revisiting a lot of those issues again,” Gonzalez added. “And by that point, the administration will be nine, 10, 11, 12 months in, and realize that in order to pass bills and things everyone wants and needs for the country, it's going to take cooperation from both sides of the aisle.”
Most Texas delegation staffers are natives of the state, usually on a tour of duty for a few years in the nation’s capital.
Those working for Republican members express frustration that the long hours have amounted to very little in actual policy. Democratic staffers are boiling, irritated with the mid-day agenda shifts that often seem half-baked.
All of them are burned out.
One staffer told the Tribune that colleagues are considering leaving the Hill, unable to keep up with the pace and tumult in the news cycle that begins early in the morning and often lasts well into the night.
Some staffers said colleagues now keep the congressional calendar on their phone backgrounds with an eye toward the next recess — the time when members return to their districts and their team can catch up on backed-up work.
Trump’s only significant political achievement so far — the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch — is something that did not even come through the House.
But U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Heath, remains upbeat about his chamber’s agenda.
“Admittedly, it’s taken us longer to get to some of the goals and accomplishments that we all want to see happen, but I’m still very optimistic that we’ll get to them,” he told the Tribune.
“We all saw it coming, we were all well prepared, and we were told that the president wanted to accomplish a lot in the first 100 days, so we adjusted the schedule accordingly,” he added.
“So yeah, it’s has been taxing, but at the same time the possibility of doing some things that haven’t been done in a long time ... is a motivating factor every day and why we think this is all hopefully worthwhile.”
Read related Tribune coverage:
- The Trump administration floated — and then pulled back on — major changes to NAFTA.
- The 2018 congressional House races are beginning to take shape across Texas.