It’s moving day for U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise.
He’s moving up in the hierarchy of the ruling Republican majority in the House of Representatives Thursday, officially assuming the No. 3 post of whip, to which he was elected by his Republican colleagues June 19. That’s the highest leadership rank ever attained by a House Republican from Louisiana, and the highest for any congressman from the state since Hale Boggs, a Democrat from New Orleans, held the No 2. post of majority leader in 1962-71.
Scalise will be moving across Independence Avenue Southeast from his suite in the Rayburn Office Building into the U.S. Capitol, where he will occupy the third-floor office up the stairs from the chambers of the top-ranking House Republican, Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio. (Scalise will keep the Rayburn office as his operations center for constituent services). That third-floor space has served as the whip’s office in the past, although its most recent occupant is outgoing Majority Leader Eric Cantor, whose unexpected defeat in a June 10 primary in Virginia set off the chain reaction that created an opening for Scalise.
Scalise also is stepping more directly into the political spotlight, as demonstrated by his first-ever appearance on a national television news show last weekend, when he was interviewed by Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.”
And as an identifiable member of the leadership, he’ll be traveling more across the country, with Republican House candidates inviting him to headline their campaign fundraisers. He said he also expects to be bringing more members to his own district in Southeast Louisiana, though the net effect likely means less time at home with his family in Jefferson.
Being a good listener
“In terms of your work life and your personal life, it just takes an enormous amount of time,” David Bonior, a Michigan Democrat who was House majority whip in 1991-95, said this week.
“When you’re an elected member of your caucus or conference, you have another constituency in addition to the one you have back home,” Bonior said. (Democrats use “caucus” for their partisan House ranks, while Republicans prefer “conference.”) “You have to serve that constituency. You have to get to know every member of that conference as best you can.
“You have to take care of their needs and their concerns, and that means sitting at their sides. Sometimes it means helping them raise money for their campaigns. It means listening to them beef, or sometimes to their personal problems.
“It’s a combination of being a good listener, a good traveler and a good counselor. It’s a lot of different jobs, and you’re adding that to an already very busy schedule.”
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who was House majority whip in 2003-07, said, “What Steve’s work-life change will be is he’s going to spend a whole lot more time talking to members and finding out what they’re able to do, what they’re willing to do and what they want to do — and then see how that fits into legislation.”
What’s not immediately clear is how much Scalise’s promotion may require him to shift politically and ideologically.
Scalise, 48, has represented the 1st Congressional District since 2008. The district is deeply conservative, taking in suburban and rural areas surrounding New Orleans as well as an upscale slice of the city along its lakefront.
Scalise has served since early 2013 as chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group that includes most House Republicans and promotes an emphatically conservative agenda. That prepared him for his new role and also helped him win the election for whip over Peter Roskam, a more moderate member from Illinois who was then chief deputy to Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, of California, the successor to Cantor; Scalise supporters argued that the House leadership should include at least one hard-right representative from a red state.
“I will now have a seat at the leadership table and be meeting with the speaker and the majority leader every day,” Scalise said this week. “We’ll meet every day to talk about the policies that will be coming in the next days, and in the next weeks and in the next months. I’ll be in that room and helping to shape that policy, and obviously I’ve got a strong philosophy and I’ll be making it very clear what I’d like to see in the policy.
“I’m going to be advocating for increased energy production, I’m going to be advocating for lower taxes and less regulations that are hurting people in Southeast Louisiana, to get people back to work, to lower costs for gasoline and food prices, for all of those things that I’ve been passionate about.
“The ultimate benefit to Louisiana is 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,” he said. “Being able to have that kind of influence is very important for our state.”
With that opportunity comes more responsibility, Scalise said, “day to day, more responsibility in terms of, on votes, whipping votes, but also meeting with our leadership to try to get the kind of conservative approach that unites our conference in policy in the bills that come before the floor.”
Yet while there are no hard and fast rules, key decisions on policy generally are considered to be the province of the speaker and the majority leader. And more so than other members, they are focused on preserving the House majority that’s responsible for the positions of power that they hold, which means developing policies and messaging that help elect Republicans from both moderate and conservative districts, in both red and blue states.
“As whip, his job is to build the votes to pass the bills that we pass out of the House,” John Fleming, a third-term congressman and Republican Study Committee member from Minden, said this week about Scalise. “And in some cases, particularly bills that are less conservative, he may have his own leanings, maybe to vote against the bill, and yet he’ll have to support it and urge others to support it.
“So it is a different role. Being on the leadership team does actually in many ways make you less free.
“He’s going to be in a little tighter lane that he would be as a rank-and-file member.”
At the same time, Bonior says, Scalise will have to respond to the wishes of those House Republicans who voted for him as whip if he hopes to keep the job beyond November.
Using power of persuasion
The straightforward description of Scalise’s new role is that he’s supposed to line up votes on the House floor in support of legislation brought forward by the Republican leadership. House majority whip is the position held by the Kevin Spacey character Frank Underwood at the beginning of the Netflix TV series “House of Cards.” That show is modeled on a British series of the same name set in the House of Commons, with its lead character named Francis Urquhart.
“I’m the chief whip,” Urquhart says in one episode. “Merely a functionary. I keep the troops in line. I put a bit of stick about. I make ’em jump.”
In the TV series, Underwood and Urquhart use such tools as murder and blackmail to “keep the troops in line” — tactics Scalise will not be expected to employ.
“It’s not ‘House of Cards,’ ” U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, said with a laugh this week.
“In addition to counting the votes, the whip operation is also an important information gathering system, to see what members are thinking, what their concerns are, what their priorities are,” Boustany said.
When Boustany came to Congress in 2005, the House leadership could dispense or withhold earmarks — appropriations targeted for specific projects in specific districts — to reward or punish members. But earmarks were banned in 2010.
“Now, the whip operation, and the whip himself, has to use the art of persuasion,” Boustany said. “It’s important for the whip to understand the political concerns that members may have, based on their districts.”
Although Boehner and McCarthy will largely control the flow of legislation, Boustany said, “The whip provides feedback to the speaker and majority leader on what is doable and what’s not, and probably has some input into the agenda.”
Beyond that, Bonior said, “It depends how aggressive the whip wants to be in being part of making the decisions.
“The longer the whip is there or the more power the whip accumulates vis-a-vis his positions, and the better the relationship he has with the speaker or majority leader, the more he will be part of deciding what is done.”
Pushing health care options
One measure of Scalise’s influence — or of his adaptability — could come in how the House leadership deals with proposed Republican alternatives to the Affordable Care Act, the signature health care reform of Democratic President Barack Obama.
Scalise played a major role in developing an alternative bill put forward by the RSC, and he has pressed for leadership to bring it to the House floor before the November 4 election. But many House Republicans feel that widespread public dissatisfaction with the health law is boosting prospects for a Republican wave in the elections, and they are reluctant to mess with a good thing by putting forth a specific alternative that Democrats could take shots at. Under Boehner and Cantor, no alternative has made it to the House floor.
On “Fox News Sunday,” Wallace asked if Scalise would push for U.S. House approval of an Affordable Care Act alternative before November.
“I’m passionate about that,” Scalise said. “Let’s lower costs for health care. Let’s put patients in charge of their solutions. So, I absolutely want to see that get done.”
Scalise will barely dip his toe in the water as whip before all the swimmers leave the pool for the August congressional recess, which starts at the end of this week and extends past Labor Day. After that, House sessions are scheduled for just a dozen days before the recess in early October that leads up to the November elections.
And after that, Scalise will have to run again for whip in a constituency of House Republicans that will include newly elected members, and thus will differ, however slightly, from the one that anointed him in June.
Follow Gregory Roberts on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.