Stephanie Grace: New spotlight on Scalise’s politics

BY STEPHANIE GRACE

sgrace@theadvocate.com

The last time a Louisiana lawmaker was elected to a top spot in the congressional hierarchy, there was joy throughout the 1st Congressional District.

Were his constituents thrilled that Bob Livingston, the Metairie Republican chosen by his peers in late 1998 for the lofty role of House speaker, was about to impose his conservative values on the land? Not exactly, although given the district’s politics, most of them were surely fine with it.

No, the jubilation that greeted Livingston’s selection, not to mention the dejection unleashed by his sudden resignation amid revelations that he’d strayed from his marriage, wasn’t about ideology or philosophy.

It was about stuff — specifically, the many millions of dollars worth of local projects, from flood-control infrastructure to transportation improvements, from shipbuilding contracts at Avondale to the development of UNO’s Research & Technology Park, that Livingston had steered back home during his years as Appropriations Committee chairman. Not to mention the anticipation that, as the House’s top leader, he would have sent many millions more this way.

This week, U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, the third person to represent the district since Livingston, but the first who actually seems to like serving in the House, officially took over the No. 3 spot in the GOP hierarchy, which means he got further than Livingston ever did.

Now, majority whip isn’t speaker. Scalise’s job isn’t so much to set policy (although he’ll certainly have input) as it is to corral and count votes. And Livingston’s brand of bringing home the bacon isn’t exactly in vogue in today’s GOP.

Still, Scalise’s life is about to get more complicated. He’ll now have two constituencies to please: the one back home in Louisiana and the one up in Washington.

Given the district’s conservatism, not to mention Louisiana’s stake in the GOP goal of expanding domestic energy production, they’ll often agree. And, indeed, Scalise, previously the leader of the conservative Republican Study Committee, says one of the ways Louisiana will benefit from his new role is that “I get to advocate for those things that I think are important to us, for our values, for the conservative values I was elected to represent.”

But it’s not a given. There are bound to be times when local priorities and positions taken by the most conservative, small-government-minded members diverge. One came up earlier this year, when Scalise helped maneuver around the highly skeptical chair of the Financial Services Committee to pass a bill to keep residents in flood-prone states from draconian increases in flood insurance premiums.

Another big intra-party fight is looming. The Export-Import Bank is due for reauthorization this fall, and Louisiana’s business establishment is pushing hard to keep the bank, which helps domestic companies expand into international markets and has benefited a whole lot of local firms. But there’s definite pushback among tea party Republicans who don’t believe this is a proper federal function. Scalise, who’s opposed reauthorization in the past, could find himself in a tricky position on this.

In truth, Scalise doesn’t just have to worry about his fellow House members. He’s also got a whole new class of political donors who clearly aren’t giving out of the goodness of their hearts; The National Journal reported that, in days after Scalise won the whip election, he raised $150,000, including donations from three dozen contributors, mainly big-time lobbyists and corporate PACs, that have never given him a look before.

Then there’s the national media, which are now more likely to seek his opinion but also more likely to pounce on his every word. His weekend appearance on presumably friendly Fox News, in which he dodged questions from host Chris Wallace about whether the House leadership would consider impeaching President Obama, drew a very public rebuke from MSNBC host and former GOP Congressman Joe Scarborough, who argued that he played into the Democrats’ hands.

“What is wrong with him?” Scarborough asked. “He is the No. 3 guy! He is not a back bencher! Not a crazy nut like I was. He is a number-three-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives! And you can’t say no to that? It’s devastating.”

And while he remains popular in Louisiana and is showing every sign that he’ll continue tending to his local politics, Scalise would also do well to keep in mind the cautionary tale of Eric Cantor, the outgoing majority leader whose ouster cleared a path for Scalise’s own ascent.

Cantor, of course, didn’t lose the confidence of the House GOP caucus.

He lost his position when the voters in his Virginia ousted him in Republican primary — presumably because he wasn’t sending enough love back home.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.