ALFORD’S OPINION COLUMN: Dismissing Congressional Clout Concerns

Not too long ago, at least in reporter years, I was utilizing the space in this weekly column with some regularity to write about the loss of influence and clout in Louisiana's congressional delegation. In doing so, I was probably repeating rather than reporting from Baton Rouge's echo chamber. Cooler heads knew there was an uncomplicated explanation, supported by recent history, that I had largely ignored — and that was the cyclical nature of political trends.

As I reflected on this theme over the weekend, it occurred to me that the storyline was a staple for political opinion writers in the Bayou State from 2003 to 2014. Former U.S. Sen. John Breaux exited elected life first, followed by Congressman Billy Tauzin, which prompted worry about the lack of locals in key leadership and committee positions. 

The defeat of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu years later, in concert with turnover in the House, provoked similar outcries. Looking further back, similar predictions peppered the late 1990s, when longtime U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston retired. Then there was Congressman Bob Livingston, the speaker-to-be who resigned after encountering the kind of sex scandal that future politicians would eventually learn to manage and live through. 

With the right kind of ears, you can still hear the wailing of uncertainty…

Who could possibly step up to replace the resources and connections that Johnston and Livingston possessed? 

Who will ever have the pull, presence or pork of giants like Breaux and Tauzin? 

The answers to these questions are as uncomplicated as they were years ago. Your current congressional delegation, the one up for re-election this fall in Louisiana, has filled those voids while exceeding expectations.

Most notably, Congressman Steve Scalise of Jefferson Parish, as majority whip, holds the third highest gig in the House. Congressman Cedric Richmond of Orleans Parish is also chairman of the Black Caucus. Those distinctions alone are enough to warrant placements in history books and thanks from Louisiana citizens who care about political stroke.

But the pair could even see a role reversal of sorts next term, depending on the outcome of this fall’s congressional races around the country. If Democrats reclaim the House, Richmond could be a potential dark-horse candidate for House speaker. POLITICO reported recently that Richmond is among the top five Black Caucus members being unofficially considered as an alternative to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Now, if Republicans can get their act together and maintain a majority next term, then it’s Scalise who should be promoted to the rank of speaker. At least that was the suggestion from a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll of GOP voters that was released last week. The survey made waves in Potomacland, where conservative congressmen are sorta, kinda decided on who should replace Speaker Paul Ryan, depending on the timing of the internal election, the results from the midterm elections and a variety of other factors that point to indecision and hesitation.

According to the poll, 9 percent of the Republican voters surveyed preferred Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who at times seems to have the establishment blessing. Scalise, who has been supportive of McCarthy and respectful of the Hill’s pecking order, doubled that figure for an 18 percent showing in the poll. Several of Scalise’s allies have said that the whip would consider running if McCarthy could not garner enough support in preliminary vote counts.

Elsewhere in your delegation, Congressman Mike Johnson of Bossier Parish is reminding some of a younger Scalise by running for the chairmanship of the House Republican Study Committee. Scalise held the same title at one time and used it to assist other members of Congress in their re-election efforts, which he in turn leveraged for a more traditional leadership job. 

In the upper chamber, junior Sen. John Kennedy has become a media darling on the Judiciary Committee, and he’s the envy of his colleagues with a seat on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. Senior Sen. Bill Cassidy, as a physician, continues to feel the national spotlight on health care issues, but his posts on the energy and finance committees have paid dividends in Louisiana.

As for the lower chamber, Congressman Ralph Abraham, who represents portions of northeast and central Louisiana, is the chairman of an oversight subcommittee on science, space and technology. He's also a notable voice on the agriculture committee and landed a seat this year at the farm bill’s final negotiating table. Baton Rouge Congressman Garret Graves, meanwhile, has a distinct policy niche on water-related issues, which is as invaluable to Louisiana as his assignments to the natural resources and transportation committees. In fact, Graves is the only federal official from the Bayou State with a seat on a transportation-related panel. Aside from his quasi-celebrity profile, Acadiana Congressman Clay Higgins also gives the state a voice on matters related to homeland security and veterans' affairs.

So has Louisiana suffered a loss of clout? Did we ever recover from the exits of Johnston, Livingston, Breaux, Tauzin, Landrieu and all of the other bayou-to-Beltway names of yesteryear?

There’s no doubt that their talents could be useful. But I think we’ll be fine. (For now.)

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