The Bayou State’s congressional delegation is gaining momentum, but its clout on the national stage is nowhere near what it once was
Since being elected in 2014, Sen. Bill Cassidy has landed a spot on the Senate Finance Committee and has taken a lead role in reforming the Affordable Care Act. In this Jan. 23 photo, Cassidy speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill to tout his plan for replacing the ACA. Photography by The Associated Press
Louisiana’s congressional delegation—once among the most powerful in the nation—has been overhauled in recent years, losing much of its clout and influence along the way. Not only has reapportionment shrunk the size of the delegation, but turnover has left Louisiana with a relative dearth of experience in the nation’s halls of power.
The dramatic shift has not gone unnoticed by those keeping tabs on who controls Capitol Hill. Roll Call, which publishes a Congressional Clout Index ranking state delegations every two years, demoted Louisiana’s delegation from No. 4 in clout in 2013 to No. 30 in 2015.
“The influence of state congressional delegations waxes and wanes,” says Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report, a prominent national newsletter that analyzes American politics. “Unfortunately for Louisiana, they now have the least seniority as they have had in well over a half century.”
But local political and business experts say that while Louisiana is at a relative disadvantage because of the shift in balance of power over the past two decades, the pendulum seems to be swinging back in the state’s direction, and Capital Region legislators are playing a key role in the comeback.
The state’s two U.S. senators—John Kennedy, elected in 2016, and Bill Cassidy, elected in 2014—have close ties to the Capital Region, and each has landed positions on powerful money committees. Along with the area’s House representative, Garret Graves, they are all members of the majority party under Republican President Donald Trump’s new administration.
What’s more, the majority whip position in the House of Representatives continues to be held by Metairie Congressman Steve Scalise, and the newly elected chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus is Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans.
National influence matters because Louisiana is in need of federal aid now more than ever. As the state faces an ongoing budget crisis and pressing needs in infrastructure and flood relief, among other issues, having lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have access and clout can help the state get back on its feet again.
SLIPPING DOWN THE RANKS
In the latter half of the 20th century, Louisiana’s delegation wielded tremendous influence on Capitol Hill. The state had several heavyweights—like Hale Boggs, Russell Long, Bennett Johnston, John Breaux, Billy Tauzin, Richard Baker and Bob Livingston—who were in office for decades and held powerful positions.
Boggs was the House majority leader until a plane he was flying on disappeared and presumably crashed in 1972. Livingston was in line to become House speaker before he resigned in the wake of a sex scandal in 1998. And Long was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee for 15 years.
But times have changed since then. For one thing, Louisiana’s population growth has lagged behind other states. As a result, the state lost seats in the House. For much of the 20th century, the Bayou State had eight seats in Congress, not including its two senators. But after the 1990 census, it dropped to seven. Another was lost after the 2010 census, leaving Louisiana with just six representatives.
Not only has Louisiana lost seats in Congress, it has lost experience. Today, Louisiana’s eight delegates average just three years of service in Congress. Sens. Cassidy and Kennedy have only two years of seniority combined, and four of the six representatives are either freshmen or sophomores.
Partly due to the changing nature of Congress, voters today easily grow impatient with their elected officials and are more willing to oust longtimers in favor of a fresh face. Political outsiders have risen to the top, as career congressmen are losing their seats.
“The old recipe for influence was to elect members young, preferably in their 30s, then leave them in office for a long time,” Cook says. “That’s how committee chairmanships in serious influence were developed, but those days are gone. Few states do that now.”
Whatever the reasons, Louisiana has seen its national standing plummet in recent years. The state fell 26 spots in the Roll Call Clout Index after three-term Sen. Mary Landrieu lost her seat to Cassidy in 2014.
With the departure of two-term Sen. David Vitter in 2016, it’s very possible Louisiana will drop again in the ranking. Roll Call senior editor David Hawkings says there’s no reason to believe Louisiana moved up, but he can’t say for sure if the state dropped until the next report is completed later this year.
Roll Call ranks clout based on delegation size, seniority, percentage from the party in power, chairmen and ranking members, and assignments to exclusive committees. Up until 2013, the formula included per capita federal spending, but Roll Call eliminated it in 2015, four years after the earmark era ended and most of the money for dedicated pet projects from years past had been spent. Earmarks were once a big part of Louisiana’s delegation power.
As a result of the loss in clout, Louisiana’s representatives in Congress will now have to work that much harder, says Joshua Stockley, a University of Louisiana at Monroe assistant professor of political science. Even though delegates are on choice committees, those committees still recognize seniority.
“Lacking years of service is going to be a very real impediment to the ability to get things done,” Stockley says. “They’re going to have to work harder and forge more relationships. The legislative process boils down to relationships. It is logistically impossible to get things done in D.C. without forging relationships, which takes time.”
Political analyst Ron Faucheux says another obstacle for the Louisiana delegation––and really, for all of Congress––is a lack of bipartisanship. Traditionally, Louisiana legislators like John Breaux worked across the aisle to broker deals and earn clout, but that hardly happens anymore—and no state does it, Faucheux says. The political center of Congress has faded as partisan ties have intensified across the nation.
“That’s the nature of Congress now. That style of bipartisan leadership is not happening,” he says. “I think that hurts the country.”
Faucheux insists, however, the Bayou State hasn’t lost all influence on Capitol Hill. The Louisiana native, and former editor and publisher of Campaigns & Elections magazine, acknowledges the delegation lacks the seniority it once possessed, but says what the state lacks in experience it makes up for in other strengths.
“Seven of the eight members are of the majority party, which puts them in positions of influence on committees,” Faucheux notes. “On the Republican side, we have the House whip. We haven’t had that kind of position since Hale Boggs was majority leader. And Richmond, as chairman of the Black Caucus, is very influential.”
A lot of the ability to get things done in Congress depends on determination, not just seniority, Faucheux says.
“We have some bright people—Kennedy, Cassidy, they’re very capable,” he adds. “Seniority may be overplayed.”
If there was ever a time Louisiana needed a strong voice in Congress, it’s now. The state faces an ongoing budget crisis and struggling economy, while the Capital Region deals with the aftermath of historic flooding and longstanding traffic and infrastructure issues. And then there’s the state’s eroding coastline.
Business leaders are optimistic, though, that relief is coming. Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President and CEO Stephen Waguespack says the state delegation is well situated going into 2017 under a new administration and, despite inexperience, leaders are emerging.
Cassidy landed a spot on the Senate Finance Committee and has taken a lead role in reforming the Affordable Care Act, and Graves is now chairman of the Water Resources Subcommittee. Both have experience in these areas: Cassidy as a physician with a long private practice history, and Graves as former head of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
In addition, freshman Sen. Kennedy grabbed seats on the powerful Appropriations and Judiciary committees, among others. And Richmond’s influence on the left side of the aisle is important to note. Waguespack says Richmond has a solid platform as head of the Black Caucus.
“We are rebuilding relevance,” Waguespack says. “Congress is different today than 20 or 30 years ago, when you needed seniority because that’s how things got done. We relied on earmarks and dedications. Today, you have to be sharp on policy and substance. Trump is looking for new ideas and perspectives. Our delegation brings substance.”
One of Trump’s campaign pledges was an aggressive infrastructure bill, which could be crucial for Louisiana. The job of state delegates will be to influence how that legislation is drafted to benefit the state, Waguespack says. Fortunately, Graves is on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which—with the help of Scalise—puts Louisiana in a powerful position.
The Baton Rouge area, which Graves represents, is also in a favorable position. Both Graves and Cassidy call Baton Rouge home, and the state’s other senator, Kennedy, lives in Madisonville but grew up in Zachary and spent most of his career in the Capital City.
While it may not be politically expedient, experts say, it’s not unusual for elected officials to be partial to their home base. Also, because Baton Rouge is the Capital City, legislators recognize its importance and why certain infrastructure projects here, like a new bridge, would benefit the entire state.
“Senators are statewide representatives so, on one hand, they are obligated to represent all of the state,” Stockley says. “That being said, a senator’s geographic base is always going to be important––whether they explicitly recognize that or not. So yes, there is an advantage for Baton Rouge.”
Stockley expects infrastructure and flood relief to be two top issues Louisiana’s senators focus on this year. In terms of flood relief, they will likely work on getting federal aid as well as protections and new stipulations for the National Flood Insurance Program. As for infrastructure, they can influence specifics of a proposed bill, such as what type of infrastructure will be included and which projects get funded.
The business community in the Capital Region is also hopeful that state delegates and the Trump administration will address its needs. The onslaught of regulations is the No. 1 issue for businesses across the state, Waguespack says. Burdensome policies such as the ACA and the new overtime pay rule disincentivize businesses, he says, and the new administration in D.C. has signaled that it wants to change that.
Dawn Starns, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, is confident in Louisiana’s senators, who she says are supportive of the business community. Although they lack seniority, Starns says, Kennedy and Cassidy are strong, vocal advocates. She’s hopeful they can effectively tackle government regulatory reform.
“Our congressional delegation is very pro-small business,” she says. “We’ve been very supportive of Trump, too. I feel like we have a real chance.”
As for whether a close relationship with President Trump will be beneficial, Stockley says it’s too early to know. Louisiana will have to wait and see what type of executive Trump will be. Some presidents are more involved in the legislative process, while others are more symbolic and hands-off. For now, he says, it’s more important to have relationships with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who set legislative priorities.
On the Democratic side, both Stockley and Waguespack also noted the importance of Richmond’s new position, which casts him as a potential rising star on the left.
“The fact that he is chair of the Black Caucus is an incredible privilege,” Stockley says. “The caucus clearly respects him or perceives him to possess qualities of a future leader.”