Stephanie Grace: Vitter courting state lawmakers

There’s a there-he-goes-again quality to U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s crusade for a vote to force members of Congress and their staffs off generous federal employee health insurance plans and onto the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges, minus the employer contribution that is routine for large American organizations.

The exact details of his proposal have shifted over the past few months, but the idea is the same: To highlight what Vitter insists is special treatment available to political players but not Average Joes, even if — actually, especially if — doing so embarrasses his colleagues.

This is a classic, scorched-earth Vitter move. It’s reminiscent of his early days in the Louisiana Legislature, when he routinely stoked populist outrage over some cushy perk, whether it be a proposed pay raise or the valuable Tulane University legislative scholarships that many lawmakers quietly bequeathed to their own friends and relatives.

Unlike the Tulane scholarships, which Vitter pushed to expose to the light of day, the health care fight fails the moral high ground test. There’s no real policy argument behind forcing members of Congress into taking a purely political vote; the measure would fix none of the health care law’s problems, and in fact would accomplish almost nothing other than to unfairly harm their own employees.

But it sure sounds good to the casual listener, which is clearly the point.

With Vitter openly mulling a return to Baton Rouge, this time as a candidate for governor, his single-minded focus on this tiny slice of the big health care fight points to just how little he’s changed since he first made his mark as an outspoken reformer or opportunistic showboater, depending on your point of view.

Still, it’s worth also noting how much the capital’s landscape has shifted since he first ran for Congress in 1999. Back then, most of the team players in the Legislature chose the other team and backed popular former Gov. Dave Treen. After Vitter won anyway, they wished him nothing but good riddance.

The current Legislature is bound to be far friendlier, in no small part because of what Vitter did before he left and what he’s done in the interim.

Long before he tried to shame his congressional peers into voting to cut off their own staffs’ insurance subsidy, he succeeded in pressuring fellow legislators into backing term limits for themselves. The constitutional amendment gave every lawmaker up to three four-year terms starting in 1995, so by the time 2007 came around, Vitter’s old adversaries were forced out en masse.

In their place came a new generation, more ideologically in line with the conservative senator, in many cases, and much more friendly.

That last part didn’t happen by accident. From Washington, Vitter helped form the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority and went to work, persuading conservative Democrats to switch parties or face a GOP challenger, raising money and recording campaign robocalls for those who did as well as new recruits, and helping the party reach its long coveted majorities in both houses.

And he’s stayed involved, both in policy debates and in political fights. Lawmakers say it’s not at all uncommon for them to get a phone call to check in or to offer some typically shrewd advice — all at a time when many are regularly clashing with Gov. Jindal and complaining about his comparative detachment and distance.

The upshot is that the onetime outcast has made a wealth of new friends in Baton Rouge, all from the safe distance of D.C.

Whether he’d hold on to them should he return home is a whole other question. So far Vitter has mostly helped lawmakers with their politics, not put them on the spot for the sake of his own. If that changes, all bets are off.

As proof, look no further than Jindal’s experience. As the current governor learned early in his own tenure, this new crowd kind of likes the idea of pay raises and perks, too. And as he found out earlier this year when even his own leadership team refused to push his resume-building proposal to kill the state income tax and raise sales taxes, there’s only so much you can ask of your fellow politicians. Even, it turns out, when they’re your friends.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.