Washington Watch: Delegation’s power growing on Capitol Hill

Whether it was U.S. Sen. Russell Long chairing the Senate Finance Committee for parts of three decades, or Congressman Hale Boggs, of New Orleans, serving as House majority leader, the Louisiana congressional delegation for many years held an outsized reputation.

Toward the end of the 20th century and through the past decade, that sway in Washington declined through a combination of new blood, scandals and more, especially as the state turned from moderately “blue” to more conservative “red” in recent years.

Louisiana then saw itself with more inexperienced Republicans in Congress and fewer people holding important positions. In January, Louisiana even lost a congressional seat because of a lack of population growth, leaving the state with just six House members.

But, suddenly this week, Louisiana finds itself in the mix with California, Texas, Florida and New York in the top five states of supposed congressional “clout,” according to the Roll Call publication, which maintains a “Total Clout Index.”

Louisiana ranked middle of the pack — in the 30s — in the past two studies, but made the biggest surge nationally all the way to No. 4, one spot ahead of New York, in the latest ranking. California, Florida and Texas, respectively, form the top three.

Roll Call gives Louisiana credit for more of its delegation winning congressional chairmanships in January and for the state receiving more federal funding per capita than most other states. Ongoing hurricane relief funding, BP oil leak aid from the government and extra federal Medicaid dollars all could play a factor.

“And, whether through legislative sleight-of-hand or advocacy in the shadows, members of Congress still have a decent amount of influence at the margins for steering cash toward home,” writes Roll Call’s David Hawkings. “And this is where Florida and Louisiana both lapped the field in the current study. The government spent $30,500 for each person in both of those states two years ago, 60 percent more than the state that did third-best (Hawaii, at $18,200) in the balance-of-payments calculation.”

Bob Mann, an LSU communications professor and a past Democratic aide to former Louisiana U.S. Sen. John Breaux, cautioned against reading too much into the report.

“My sense is that this is correct only if you believe that appropriations and committee chairmanships are the primary means of acquiring clout,” Mann said in an email conversation.

“If all Congress did was appropriate money, then I would think this could be a pretty good measure of influence or clout. But it’s not,” Mann added. “And every committee chairmanship is not created equal. Some have much more power than others. I would say there are many other factors, many of them intangible, that go into determining whether a member has clout.”

Among those chairmen is U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, who won a tough re-election and continues to chair the Oversight Subcommittee of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

The dean of Louisiana’s U.S. House delegation, Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, is new chairman of the Legislative Branch Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, which is the top money committee.

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, rose to the vice chairman position in the House Energy and Power Subcommittee. Scalise also now leads the conservative Republican Study Committee.

It only helps that five of the state’s six House members are Republicans in the GOP-dominated House.

In the upper chamber, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La, is now the top GOP member — or “ranking member” — of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., maintains her leadership roles chairing both the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee along with the Senate Appropriations’ Homeland Security Subcommittee.

Alexander said Louisiana is well positioned among the range of committees.

“I didn’t realize it was that high, but we have some pretty good committee positions in our delegation,” Alexander said. “It’s good for Louisiana.”

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. His email address is jblum@theadvocate.com.