With 435 members jostling for attention and influence, it's hard for a freshman congressman to make his mark through the legislative process. Instead, new members who draw headlines tend to do so from the outside, and often by saying something shocking.
And U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, who cast himself during his insurgent 2016 bid as a "warrior armed with the Constitution" ready to battle the career politicians he said were devouring the country from within, has certainly had his moments. One came when the "Cajun John Wayne" posted a bloodthirsty message on Facebook about "radicalized Islamic suspect(s)," for which he did not apologize. Another came when he posted one of his signature videos filmed inside the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, for which he did say he was sorry.
That's about what anyone who watched Higgins, the swaggering onetime St. Landry Parish Sheriff's deputy and star of tough-talking Crime Stoppers videos, might have expected.
What they might not have predicted is what else has happened, according to a weekend story by The Advocate's Bryn Stole: While Higgins ran on shaking authenticity, he's mostly taken a more conventional approach to the job.
Rather than a revolutionary, voters in the 3rd District in southwest Louisiana mostly got a reliable conservative who votes with the Republican leadership, has grown to admire Speaker Paul Ryan, whom he'd once deemed a sellout, and focuses on low-profile but important constituent services.
That's probably what they would have gotten from the insider favorite in that 2016 election, former gubernatorial candidate and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, whom Higgins beat after running a populist-themed campaign.
His election coincided with President Donald Trump's ascent, of course, and Higgins acknowledges that he was a "Trump-type candidate." And just as with Trump, his performance so far raises questions about just how much all that populism was about substance, and how much was for show.
Trump ran as a bomb-thrower and has overseen a White House that's anything but conventional. But in terms of policy, he's been largely in line with the dominant Republican philosophy that existed long before he entered politics. Consider his appointment of highly conservative judges, his failed bid to repeal the Affordable Care Act and his successful push for a big tax cut heavily weighted toward the wealthy. Consider too his opposition to environmental regulations and outright cheerleading for coal, oil and gas. Trump even hired Angelle, Higgins' vanquished opponent and an unabashed industry advocate, to head the government agency that regulates offshore oil and gas drilling. Nothing unconventional about that.
As for Higgins, perhaps the most interesting thing about his first year in office is that he too is playing well with the insiders he once castigated. He hasn't joined the periodic rebellions against the House's leadership, which are largely led by moderates in swing districts on one side and the hard-line Freedom Caucus on the other. He has placated at least some more traditional players in his district by not rocking the boat. There's no major sign that many of his constituents are disappointed that he's tempered his approach, and plenty are likely relieved.
In fact, at this point, there's no real reason to think he won't have the same easy reelection that most incumbents experience, widespread fury over both Congress and Washington in general notwithstanding.
If so, that raises some interesting questions that also apply to the president: To what extent is Trumpian populism about policy, rather than appearances?
And at what point is it fair to ask whether all this outsider authenticity isn't so authentic after all?