Washington Watch: Scalise nabbed post after whirlwind campaign

It took an “incredible whirlwind” of a campaign by U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise to win election as House majority whip, he said last week.

The campaign — just nine days long, and with a constituency comprising the 233 Republicans in the U.S. House — did not include any speeches to Rotary clubs, handshakes at factory gates or attack ads on TV.

But it did involve money, and more specifically, expenditures in something of a gray area — a color frequently associated with campaign finance in American politics.

Scalise has done little to shed light on his spending in the whip campaign, which almost certainly ran into thousands of dollars. Although there’s been no suggestion that he broke any laws, he has repeatedly deflected questions about the source of the money, saying only that none of it came from the taxpayers.

The campaign kicked off, unexpectedly, on June 10, when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost a Republican primary in Virginia. That set off a game of musical chairs that opened the whip position, which is No. 3 in the hierarchy, after speaker and majority leader.

“We had to move really fast,” Scalise said. The leadership election was set for June 19. The intervening days were filled with phone calls and text messages, sit-down meetings in congressional offices and huddled conversations on the House floor.

“We worked very hard on this,” Scalise said. “In the true Louisiana fashion, we worked hard and we played hard.”

Scalise assembled a team of 50 House members to round up votes for him, and on the Monday night before the Thursday vote, he treated them to a meal at Acadiana, a Louisiana-themed restaurant in Washington. Among the offerings, he said, were boudin balls, oysters and gumbo. He handed out red baseball bats from Marucci Sports in Baton Rouge, painted with his name and the motto, “Bring the wood.”

“I thought it would be really good for camaraderie to get together and once again go over our business and include some Louisiana flair,” Scalise said. “When we handed out those Marucci bats that said ‘Bring the wood,’ it just lit the place up.”

On its website, Acadiana advertises seating for private parties of up to 60 in its Bayou Room, with three- and four-course meals priced at $40 to $65 per person. The Marucci website lists red souvenir bats at $74.99 each for the full size, which photographs indicate is the model Scalise chose.

Scalise may have paid for the food and bats out of his own pocket, which is OK under House rules: Gifts from one member to other members are permitted. Or he may have tapped his political accounts: either his campaign fund, or his so-called leadership political action committee.

Use of the campaign fund — the money that finances his elections to Congress every two years — could be problematic: Federal law bars the use of official candidate funds for personal use, or “to fulfill any commitment, obligation, or expense of a person that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s election campaign or individual’s duties as a holder of Federal office.” It’s uncertain how the Federal Election Commission might view the whip campaign spending under that restriction.

Scalise’s leadership account — the Eye of the Tiger PAC — could be a more likely source.

Leadership PACs are sponsored and controlled by members of Congress, and there are hundreds of them; they function like other PACs, making contributions to candidates and spending for political purposes.

Scalise’s leadership PAC has taken in $335,000 this year and spent $277,000, based on reports covering the period through May 31; the report for June is not due until mid-July.

Leadership PACs are not subject to the same spending restriction that applies to official campaign committees, so Scalise would apparently be in the clear if he did tap that account. But the FEC thinks the rule should be changed: It has recommended that Congress extend the restriction to leadership PACs.

Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is groberts@theadvocate.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregRobertsDC.