Cross Canadian Ragweed was on Congressman Chip Roy’s playlist when I asked him in January if Ticketmaster should be reined in by Congress. “I’m a live music guy,” said the Texas Republican.
“The fa**ots down in Norman, they got a kinky streak” goes the refrain in a Cross Canadian Ragweed song, alleging that the titular “Boys From Oklahoma” roll shitty joints. The band actually began in the Sooner State but is huge across the border in Texas, where Chip Roy worked for Governor Rick Perry before serving as Ted Cruz’s first chief of staff in the Senate.
Roy is now a high-profile member of the House GOP who Speaker Kevin McCarthy has to deal with on everything. The two-term Texas Republican speaks loudly and clearly to Capitol press about what he thinks of his own GOP conference. He led the anti-compromise charge against last week’s debt limit bill, and even though he and his Freedom Caucus allies failed miserably, well, he got some time in front of the cameras and was widely cited in the press. His desire for attention suggested a certain ambition. But what, exactly, is it?
Last Tuesday’s House vote on the debt deal isn’t the first time Roy got smoked in slow motion in a policy standoff with a Democratic president. In 2013, the Affordable Care Act was passed, despite Roy and his then-freshman boss in the Senate shutting down the federal government for 16 days in an effort to defund the program. Cruz’s real ambition with the shutdown was to tee up his run for president in 2016, when he was humiliated by Donald Trump in the GOP primary.
Six years later, the former Cruz aide was sworn in as a freshman in the House of Representatives with a GOP minority led by Kevin McCarthy, who put Roy on the House Judiciary Committee. Roy made news a year later by expressing support for lynch mobs during a hearing on discrimination and violence against Asian Americans. “There’s old sayings in Texas about ‘find all the rope in Texas and get a tall oak tree,’” Roy said. “Hang ’em high.” Congresswoman Grace Meng, a New York Democrat, was literally reduced to tears by his remarks, which came just days after six Asians were murdered in a mass shooting. Far from apologizing, Roy doubled down. “Yeah, so? It was a metaphor for justice,” Roy later told the Austin American-Statesman when asked about the racial connotations of lynching for African Americans.
The first time I encountered the Texas carpetbagger (who is really from Bethesda, Maryland), he was shouting, “That’s bullshit!” several times in the face of HuffPost reporter Arthur Delaney in a Capitol corridor outside a busy House chamber. Delaney was questioning Roy about the border, and he didn’t back down as a Capitol Police officer stood nervously by to de-escalate the situation in the event it came to blows. I cut in with a question that Roy immediately turned to answer calmly before continuing his tirade at Delaney.
One might be tempted to compare Cruz and Roy, especially since Roy led the charge against the bipartisan agreement to raise the debt ceiling, warning his fellow Republicans that there would be “a reckoning.” But an important distinction exists between the two.
In the Senate, Cruz is a performance artist with no particular ideology beyond the utterly shameless pursuit of political opportunities. Reading Green Eggs and Ham on the Senate floor during the government shutdown he caused was an important brand-building exercise that Cruz parlayed into getting the silver in the 2016 GOP primary after winning the Iowa caucus, and remaining to this day one of the Republicans liberals (and many of his Senate colleagues, of both parties) most love to hate.
Roy, on the other hand, behaves like a true believer in a throwback version of conservatism built around a deeply held commitment to balanced federal budgets. He’s a true ideologue, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative in the peanut gallery of the House GOP. “I think he’s an important member of the House,” said Senator John Cornyn when asked about Roy’s political endgame. Roy was staff director during Cornyn’s freshman term in the Senate. “Chip’s a smart guy and he knows how to use leverage to get what he wants,” said the senior senator from Texas.
Leverage is what Chip Roy has in abundance over McCarthy, even after his debt ceiling debacle, for one simple reason. Working with Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz, Roy helped broker the one-member motion to vacate into the rules package that passed the House in January. This means any member of the GOP majority can enter a privileged motion to fire McCarthy as House speaker. Privileged motions must be voted on if they are not withdrawn. A simple majority in favor of a motion to vacate ousts the speaker.
“I’m not gonna play that game,” Roy insisted when asked by reporters on March 23 whether betraying Freedom Caucus priorities in debt ceiling negotiations with the White House could trigger a motion to replace McCarthy. “Kevin’s been doing a good job working with all of us to try to have a united conference to go present a united front to the president.”
To be clear, Roy is not a hard-liner on every issue. He has found common cause with Representative Abigail Spanberger, a moderate Democrat from Virginia with whom he shares a birthday (they shout “Happy birthday” when they walk past each other), to ban members of Congress and their spouses from trading stocks. And unlike Boebert, Gaetz, and other members of the Freedom Caucus, he voted to certify the 2020 presidential election results, along with fellow archconservative Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky.
But Massie and Roy wound up on opposite ends of both the speaker fight and the debt limit bill. Both men sit on the House Rules Committee, and they share many traits in common. Despite their anti-elite posturing, both men hold degrees from elite institutions (Massie from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Roy from the University of Virginia). Massie frequently wears a miniature clock on his lapel pin that shows the rising national debt, but he voted both for McCarthy and on the bipartisan agreement. Conversely, Roy initially opposed McCarthy’s bid before flipping and was both physically and metaphorically the loudest critic of the bipartisan agreement House GOP leadership brokered with the White House.
Massie, who once said he realized people voted for him and Donald Trump because “they were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race,” has since been rewarded handsomely, becoming the chairman of the antitrust subcommittee on the House Judiciary Subcommittee, leapfrogging fellow conservative Ken Buck.
But Roy hasn’t reaped any benefits from his one-man charge, save for more attention. “Chip Roy is a leader and really a thought leader with the conservatives,” said Buck, a Colorado Republican and fellow member of the far-right Freedom Caucus. “Thought leader” is a Beltway term used to describe a wide range of experts and charlatans. And becoming one of those, sources told me, is maybe Chip Roy’s endgame in politics. He’s got a relatively safe seat in Texas, but how much can Roy grow in the House GOP conference? McCarthy has already put Roy on the Rules, Budget, and Judiciary committees, a nod to Roy’s intelligence and experience pulling the parliamentary levers of power in the Senate as a top aide to Cornyn and Cruz. But viral bomb throwers like Roy are becoming more commonplace on Capitol Hill, a fact that’s unlikely to change in future Congresses.
Compared to the millions of online followers amassed by his Freedom Caucus colleagues Greene and Boebert, Roy is not exactly a superstar, boasting just a few hundred thousand followers on social media. He could elevate his political brand by running for Senate, Texas governor, or even president, but for now Roy seems genuinely content establishing himself as a resident talking head in the lower chamber of Congress. If all else fails, the path from lawmaker to punditry is well trodden through a revolving door that’ll surely spin for Roy if he tires of fighting political battles and losing policy wars in Congress.