At the Texas Capitol, being a rookie lawmaker is a lot like starting any new job. Your first week, you just want to find the right office without getting lost in an empty hallway.
As the 85th Texas Legislature starts its final full week, we asked two freshmen members of the Texas House of Representatives what they’ve learned about low bill numbers and high expectations.
Rep. Kyle Biedermann isn’t your typical politician. The Fredericksburg Republican owns a hardware store and spent nearly three decades hosting a home improvement radio show. So his first days at the Capitol were full of surprises.
“People already know who you are,” says Biedermann. “That was very eye-opening and shocking.”
“He's 100 percent right on that,” adds Rep. Shawn Thierry. The Houston lawyer and Democrat is also new. “You get on the elevator and everyone's nodding their head. That took a little getting used to.”
In many ways, Biedermann and Thierry are total opposites. But over the session, they’ve become friendly. Together, they’ve navigated the legislature’s strange rituals and traditions, which started on day one.
"We have this ping pong ball system and whatever the number is that's your seniority in your class and you keep it with you forever," explains Thierry. "I was, I believe, number nine.” Biedermann was number 10.
Based on your number, you get dibs on parking, picking your office and choosing your desk mate.
They say your desk mate on the House floor is like your lab partner in a high school chemistry class.
"You don’t always vote the same way," says Biedermann, but he explains that a desk mate can help you keep up with the high speed changes, “especially someone who's been here.”
Different philosophies, similar frustrations
Thierry and Biedermann came to the Capitol with contrasting ideas about their roles as lawmakers and how government should work. Thierry says she filed her first bill on her first day, probably before her computer was even plugged in.
Biedermann says he wanted to file as little legislation as possible. He was looking for, as he put it, “less government, limited government, less rules, less bills.” But, he says, once you’re sucked into the Capitol, you learn it actually takes a lot to get less.
“If you want to fix something it takes a bill,” he says. “Or, if there's a problem in your district...it takes a bill. Or if there's a bill that was bad...it takes a bill to fix the bad bill. You start adding up all these things that could do good, that could reduce government – it still takes bills!”
Both freshmen also realized it’s almost impossible to pass those bills, even if your idea is so simple everybody thinks it already exists. Like a bill Thierry wrote that would create a statewide website listing available beds for psychiatric patients.
“Right now, believe it or not, there is no system for that,” she says. “We literally call on the phone all around the state. A couple of members said ‘No, we have that.’ And I said ‘No, we don't.’ And we looked it up and they said ‘OK, we don't.’”
Biedermann shares her surprise. He adds, “Everyday we hear of bills like, 'Why are we hearing this? Why isn't this already there? Why would this have gotten past for all these years?'”
In all, Thierry authored more than 30 bills. Only 6 of them even made it to the house floor. That’s a big adjustment for two people used to getting things done, whether it’s in business or through the legal system.
“When you file a lawsuit, no matter how long it takes, you do get a trial date. You will have your day in court," Thierry says. "In this process, it's different. When you file a bill, you may not get your day in court.”
Biedermann says he’s also learned to adjust his mindset.
“We all have expectations that we're going to save the world. You're ready to start getting some things done. But, it's best if your expectations are more realistic so you don't overwork yourself on things that may or may not really happen,” he says.
Balancing life and lawmaking
The Legislature is more than just five months without sleep or direct sunlight. Biedermann and Thierry say it’s also been tough on their families.
On top of writing bills and commuting to Austin, Thierry’s also a single mom to a 4-year-old daughter. Every week, her mother and her daughter ride the Megabus to Austin to stay with her, and then she drives back to Houston with them a couple of days later.
What does her daughter think of mom's new job?
“I didn't know she was quite aware of it," Thierry says, laughing. "But she told someone on Easter, ‘Hey my mom works at the Capitol’ and she started telling them that she pushes green for yes and red for no because I brought her to the floor. She thinks the Speaker of the House is the principal.”
“I don't see my family,” Biedermann says, admitting the job affects his whole family. “I have five grandkids. I was driving around a week before Christmas this last Christmas and I just realized...I hadn’t even bought a Christmas present yet. I don't even know what day it was.”
Looking forward to 'sophomore' year
But both lawmakers are acutely aware of the days now, as the 85th Legislature rapidly approaches its end. Chatting together, these newbies-turned-veterans say they’re ready for a fresh start.
"What was your lowest bill number?" Biedermann asks.
"919!" replies Thierry. “You filed on your first day!" Biederman laughs. "The lower numbers mean you’re somebody, basically. And that’s who we’ll be next session, right?”
"That's right!" says Thierry.