(Photography by The Associated Press: Congressman Steve Scalise)
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise became the third-most powerful member of Congress last year, when he was elected Majority Whip by his fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives. In the seven months since, Scalise, who has represented Louisiana’s 1st Congressional District since 2008, has helped build coalitions in a fractured GOP and played an instrumental role in the passage of key pieces of legislation like the recent omnibus spending bill. Life in the House leadership has been a big change for Scalise, who now has two FBI agents at his side almost 24 hours a day. But he still manages to come home most weekends to see his wife and two children, who remain in his Metairie district.
You are fresh off a big victory with the omnibus spending bill. Tell us about the significance of it for Louisiana and the role you played in getting it passed.
Part of the job as whip is to help put coalitions together to pass the bills we bring to the House floor and also work on the policy along the way. Getting the ban on oil exports lifted was a priority of mine this year, and we were able to get it included in this bill. That helped us with a lot of votes on the spending bill. If you look at the Texas delegation and Oklahoma, even, we were able to get a lot of support to make that happen. I worked closely with Speaker [Paul] Ryan. We meet daily when we’re up there so since he’s been speaker it has been good to see how our conference has come together on the Republican side.
When you talk about bringing these factions together, the political climate is so polarized today. How have you been able to do it?
It’s a relationship business. You’ve got to build relationships with people. You’ve got to be honest with people. As you earn the trust there are things that members have an interest in, whether it’s something they want to get included in a bill, and I’ve been able to work with a lot of members to help address the issues that they’ve had, or at least to try to push to get things brought up later down the road. It’s constant conversations with our members. I have a very strong relationship with every member, and I cherish that. We work hard at it. We like bringing our southern Louisiana culture to D.C. I’ve brought a couple of Louisiana chefs up there. Many of them have tried charbroiled oysters and blackened redfish now. You do some of that to help build better relationships, but it also is nice to be able to share our culture with people from around the country and they love it.
How is the dynamic different under Speaker Ryan?
After five years, there were some members that had some personal differences with Speaker [John] Boehner and some things that had come to a head that were making it tough for the conference to move forward. When Speaker Boehner left there was a void, but Paul filled it very quickly. And I think Paul Ryan was the only person who could come in and quickly unite our conference because he has a national reputation as a conservative leader. Our members know and respect Paul and trust him and I had a really good relationship with him before he became speaker, so it’s really worked well. We work very well together, and it’s been a good relationship that has benefited our conference and the country.
You said he has united your conference. Is it really united now?
You can feel the positive vibes on the House floor when there’s a vote and everybody’s together. The members, I think, feel a lot more upbeat about some of the reforms Paul said he is going to bring to the House. He said he is going to open up the process a lot more and allow a lot more members to bring their amendments to the floor. He opened up the steering committee and brought six new people on to the steering committee that reflect different groups within our conference. So he quickly did things to earn the trust and show that things are going to be different in the House and that has helped him get off to a really good start.
How has your life changed since you became whip?
It’s a lot more tense. When you’re in Congress, your days are packed with meetings, but now the meetings are more focused on the broader national interest and the House agenda. I’m directly involved in meeting with the different leadership offices, and I meet with the speaker and majority leader every day we’re in session. For Louisiana it is very good because I get to bring issues to the table that might not get brought up and help advance those things that are important to our state and our country.
What are some of the Louisiana issues you have been able to address in your new role?
I was very active in the flood insurance reform debate a year and a half ago, and that is going to come up again next year. And also revenue sharing, which is critical for coastal restoration. The president’s budget proposed gutting our revenue sharing, and I worked with our leadership team to make sure when we did a House budget we preserved the revenue sharing that our state is set to get in 2017. We were able to get language in the highway bill that just passed that benefits projects like Louisiana Highway 1, which is critical to the energy infrastructure in Louisiana.
What about funding for badly needed infrastructure projects in the Capital Region?
For congested areas, (Congressman) Garrett Graves has worked on some language that benefits high-density areas like the Interstate 10 congestion in Baton Rouge. We have a six-year bill, which gives certainty to the industry that we’re going to be able to use taxpayer money much more efficiently in moving some highway projects that will benefit our economy and high-density areas like Baton Rouge.
You recently met with the new governor. Do you worry about his administration undoing some of the pro-business reforms of the past few years?
I am giving him the benefit of the doubt. Ultimately, the state is going to have to deal with its problems. I have a strong interest as a Louisiana resident but I don’t plan on getting involved in the day to day that goes on in Baton Rouge. I did that already. I did that for 12 years. It’s time for somebody else to tackle those challenges.
What are your priorities for 2016, both for the country and for Louisiana?
For the country, the top priority is to get the economy moving again, and a lot of that means getting a lot of these radical regulations out of the way, from the EPA to Obamacare. They are real impediments to job creation that are coming out of Washington, and south Louisiana is affected like everybody else. Every small business owner I talk to is negatively impacted by regulation coming out of Washington right now.
With respect to Obamacare, are you actively working to repeal it?
Yes. One of the things Paul Ryan laid out was that he wants to see us move a bill that replaces Obamacare in 2016. I’m real excited about that because when I was chairman of the Republican Study Committee I led the effort to draft a bill that was an alternative to Obamacare. We put together a bill that was less than 200 pages that not only repealed Obamacare but replaced it with conservative reforms that put patients back in charge of their health care decisions and also helped lower the cost. So I would like to approve a bill that does that and pass it to the Senate and have a national debate on this.
And environmental regulations?
The EPA is out of control. It is one of the biggest impediments to job growth in America. I’d like us to change the relationship between unelected regulators in Washington and the rest of the country so that if a regulation is proposed by an unelected bureaucrat it should have to first go through the elected representatives of the people first. Right now, you can’t hold anyone accountable when some unelected bureaucrat comes up with a really bad idea that kills jobs in America.
You talk a lot about Obama. What do you think about the current field of Republican candidates? Are you concerned about the rise of Donald Trump?
No. I think we’ve got the best field we’ve had in years, and I think ultimately our nominee will be in a very good position to beat Hillary Clinton. If you look at the last three election cycles, the person leading this far out has not won the nomination. I think where we made mistakes the last two cycles is, first, we had candidates that were more on the moderate side and I do think a more conservative candidate will have a better chance to win. But you also have to be Reaganesque. What Reagan did so well is that he inspired the people in the middle, who decide elections. We really haven’t reached out to them and inspired them with our vision, and even if they don’t like the liberal approach, if we don’t show them a better way they’re not going to vote for our nominee. So whoever is going to be able to go and passionately sell a conservative vision for our country will win the presidency.
Are you interested in ever running for president?
No. I’m enjoying the job I’ve got. It’s work I enjoy, and it’s important to our state and the country and it’s an honor to do it.
Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?
Hopefully still in a leadership position in the House working to get our country back on track with a Republican president who shares our same values.
Any interest in the Senate?
No. I’m a House guy. That’s where the action is. Things move very fast in the House. You have the ability to influence the direction of the country a lot quicker in the House. The Senate is much slower paced. It was set up to be that way. But to me, the House is where a lot of the big issues originate. I just enjoy the work of the House.