Stephanie Grace: McAllister learning the ropes in Congress

Most members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation eagerly anticipate the annual Washington Mardi Gras celebration, which is always chaired by one of the state’s members. But newcomer Vance McAllister’s initial take on the lavish celebration was — well, I’ll let him tell it.

“Holy crap!” McAllister declared when he took the mic at Friday’s economic development luncheon, a semiserious event but still a party. “Please don’t make this redneck host this whole thing.”

McAllister’s short political career has been full of “holy crap” moments, he said as he prepared for the big Saturday night parade and ball — from his landslide win in November over the establishment candidate, fellow Republican Neil Riser, to his first State of the Union address, to his confrontations with the realities of Congress.

Some have been exhilarating. Members are allowed to invite a single guest to the president’s annual address to Congress, and McAllister chose his friend Willie Robertson, of “Duck Dynasty.” The result was all over the Internet that night, as Republicans and Democrats, leaders and backbenchers alike scrambled to pose for pictures with the reality TV star.

“So I actually went from congressman to photographer for the night,” he said. “The next week on the floor, everybody’s like, ‘Boy, you’re popular now.’ ”

He said he also genuinely enjoys some of the lower-profile parts of the job.

“It’s pretty cool as a congressman that you can help a young child who’s trying to do better get into one of the military academies,” he said.

Far less satisfying, though, is the legislative environment. McAllister said he knows the country needs to keep its obligations but said he couldn’t back the recent clean debt ceiling increase because it didn’t address long-term spending. After last year’s shutdown, he said, the leadership just seemed to want to take the issue off the table and return the spotlight to the Affordable Care Act until the fall elections.

“I think it is very frustrating. I think (Washington) is everything that people think it is but a little bit worse,” he said. “It’s a lot about self-preservation.”

In fact, three months into his career, McAllister, who had never been to the nation’s capital until he was elected to Congress, still comes off as a blunt, unfiltered, independent-minded outsider, not a member of a party known for holding the ideological line.

He likes many of the tea party’s goals but questions its obstructionist tactics and its absolutism.

“Sometimes you lose touch with reality to think overnight it can happen,” he said. “You’ve got to crawl before you can walk.”

And he has no qualms about questioning GOP orthodoxy. While he firmly defends the Second Amendment, for example, he’s fine with background checks and other measures that, while popular in polls, have stalled in Congress.

“I tell everybody it’s not black and white. There’s a lot of gray in this whole world,” he said.

He continues to believe there’s lots of gray in the area of health care, an opinion he first unleashed during a televised debate in which he announced his support for the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, with the feds paying 100 percent for three years and 90 percent thereafter. Gov. Bobby Jindal and many other Republican governors have refused to accept the money.

Given the 5th District’s poverty, McAllister said over the weekend, his position is a no-brainer.

While McAllister said he knew going into the debate that it was a hot-button issue and was well aware of Jindal’s position, he hadn’t planned to take a position or even decided what his position was.

But while running through typical Republican proposals to meet his future constituents’ needs — allowing insurers to cross state lines, reducing premiums and creating more jobs — he said he realized those were all long-term solutions.

“I thought, ‘You know what, I’m not going to skirt the issue. Republican, Democrat, it don’t matter. Those working poor have paid that money in. That money’s going to Washington. It’s their money,’ ” he said. “For me to say I’m against Medicaid expansion makes me the best congressman California and Massachusetts could ever have, because that’s where that money’s gonna go.”

“It’s about doing what’s right. You keep your people healthy, they’ll continue to work. They’ll do better,” he said. “The money’s there. As a business guy, I don’t like Gov. Jindal standing up there and trying to use political points” to argue that the state can’t afford the small fraction it would eventually have to pay to draw down billions in benefits. “It don’t take Einstein to figure out that’s a pretty darn good return on your investment.”

With an attitude like that — and a penchant for saying just what’s on his mind, not to mention a few famous friends — it’s no surprise McAllister has become something of a minor celebrity on the Hill. It’s a role he doesn’t seem to mind at all.

Another member’s chief of staff recently asked McAllister’s aide, “When’s your boss’ 15 minutes gonna be up?” His aide’s answer, McAllister said with a grin, was “probably never, because he won’t shut up.”

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. For more notes from Washington Mardi Gras, read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes.