There’s one element of the Senate race in Texas that has gotten surprisingly little attention: Ted Cruz’s astonishingly thin legislative record. As his first term comes to a close, he might as well have not been in Congress at all. Cruz has passed only two of his own bills and frequently brags about an amendment that allows parents to save for private school tuition tax-free; none of them has had much practical impact on his constituents. He takes credit for Harvey relief but played an ancillary role in securing it.
Cruz’s tea party base sent him to Washington, D.C., to break stuff, not do stuff. He’s an obstructionist, not a problem-solver. In that respect, he sits well outside a long, bipartisan tradition in which the Texas congressional delegation understood its primary responsibility to be advancing Texas’ material interests. He’s not alone in that — he’s part of a trend. And whenever I think about that trend, I think about Waxahachie.
For a time in the 1980s and ’90s, the North Texas town of Waxahachie was set to become one of the most important scientific hubs in history, thanks to the Superconducting Super Collider, or SSC, which would have been the most advanced particle accelerator in the world. The SSC would have brought some of the brightest physicists to Texas to figure out what makes up the universe and how it was formed.
There was no reason the SSC should have been in Texas, except for the strength of the Texas congressional delegation — particularly Jim Wright, an important member of House leadership, who represented nearby Fort Worth. At that time, the delegation consisted of good ol’ boys stuck deep in the crevices of power in the capital, men who knew how to bring home federal largesse. They knew that a major cause of Texas’ success, as much as people might like to forget it now, was good old-fashioned pork.
More than ranching and wildcatting, pork-barrel politics built modern Texas. Federal tax money helped build the Houston Ship Channel, finished the dams that electrified the Hill Country and helped prevent flooding from the Trinity River. The feds planted NASA here, turning Houston into Space City; they also built up the University of Texas’ advanced research capabilities to make Austin a tech powerhouse. They opened and continually expanded military bases in the state. The list goes on and on.
But by the late ’80s, that system was peaking. Ethics troubles unseated Wright, then the speaker of the House, and some of the ol’ boys started losing seats or retiring. Critics said the SSC was a waste, to which the old Texas congressmen would have responded: Maybe, but so what?
After the government had already spent $2 billion, Congress unceremoniously canceled the half-built facility in 1993. The SSC’s tunnels were plugged and filled with water, leaving it as a ruin. Waxahachie lost its future.
In 1994, there was a culling of the ol’-boys’ network in Congress. Exciting new figures like Steve Stockman unseated well-connected veterans like Jack Brooks. After that year’s Gingrich revolution, it became more important to take a strong stand in the national culture war than to represent your state or district.
Cruz is the perfection of that trend. His most visible act since the end of his presidential campaign is helping to convince Donald Trump to pardon Dinesh D’Souza. Meanwhile, public projects like the Ike Dike, which Houstonians say the city needs in order to survive, go unbuilt. The congressional delegation can’t even secure the money to adequately dredge the ship channel.
At the SSC, scientists would have studied how the past, present and future are formed, by the interaction of particles and forces that are almost impossible to observe. Politics is like that, too. The actions and inactions of leaders create radically different worlds. It’s hard to communicate that to voters, because we can’t see into a universe where the SSC was built or the ship channel wasn’t. Nor can we now see what Houston will look like in 2100 without adequate flood infrastructure.
Cruz can’t help build the future because he’s focused solely on his present. To the extent that he has avoided scrutiny of his actual record, it’s because even those who dislike him have internalized the idea that Congress doesn’t do anything, and can’t. If we’re going to make it through this century, we’re going to have to make that belief a ruin, too.