Washington — On a crisp, sunny morning last week, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., invited a few reporters to his office in the Senate Hart Office Building to talk about a bill he was introducing.
The issue was called “temporary risk corridors,” a fairly arcane provision of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare.” Basically, the risk corridors are a mechanism to ease the transition into Obamacare for the health insurance industry by helping out companies who underestimated the cost of providing new coverage (and thus charged customers low premiums) by, in effect, transferring money from companies that overestimated the cost and collected higher premiums. Cassidy wants to make sure the payments aren’t supplemented with taxpayer money, as the Obama administration has indicated it will do.
But as important as the issue may be, also noteworthy was the event itself: A “pen and pad” session for the press, with reporters sitting on a couch and chairs in Cassidy’s inner office, for an on-the-record discussion with Cassidy and Leonard Lance, the Republican congressman from New Jersey who is pushing a similar House bill and who completed the circle.
During his successful 2014 campaign to defeat his three-term Democratic predecessor, Mary Landrieu, Cassidy earned a reputation as decidedly media-averse. Where Landrieu might take questions from reporters after one of her rare (because of Cassidy’s resistance) televised debates with him, Cassidy would abscond as soon as the cameras went dark. He pretty much dropped off the radar altogether for much of the last week of the campaign. And he often seemed tense in the public arena, with a caught-in-the-headlights look.
Maybe that was because he ran a risk-averse campaign by design, figuring that he needed to do little but ride the nationwide Republican tide to victory while avoiding public missteps. Or maybe it was because of something he rather casually disclosed during last week’s meeting: He assumes that every reporter he meets is a lifelong Democratic voter.
In any case, Cassidy last week came across as far more relaxed and comfortable than he was on the proverbial hustings. So, too, could he be in one-on-one sessions in his old House office, displaying a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. His intelligence and engagement were again on display in his exegesis on risk corridors.
Cassidy is a physician, a gastroenterologist with a repeatedly professed “love” of liver diseases who practiced for decades in Louisiana’s charity hospital system, so his focus on public health issues makes sense. He’s a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and four of the seven bills he has introduced this year as the principal sponsor deal with health issues. Besides tightening the rules on risk corridors, he wants to repeal the individual and employer mandates of Obamacare, grandfather existing employer health plans if employees want to keep them and develop a program to help medical professionals detect signs of human trafficking.
The other three bills for which he is prime sponsor would ban government-paid portrait paintings of federal officials, rein in EPA regulations and broaden the definition of an “antique firearm” under federal law.
Cassidy’s total of seven prime-sponsored bills, which does not include co-sponsored legislation, amendments or resolutions, ranks him well down the list of the 100 senators for the current Congress. The leader is his seatmate, fellow Republican David Vitter, and it’s not even close: Vitter has prime-sponsored 71 bills, more than three times as many as the runner-up, Dean Heller, R-Nev. It may not be a coincidence that Vitter is running for governor of Louisiana this year.
As a prime sponsor, it’s not easy to get a bill ultimately signed into law under your name, because the proposals get folded into larger bills, or a companion House measure may get the honor. The front-runner in a late October survey of the Senate was Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., with two bills he sponsored in the 2013-14 Congress signed into law. Since Vitter came to the Senate in 2005, his total is four, which includes a one-year extension of a flood insurance program, a disaster relief bill, a redefinition of a term in an animal welfare law and a measure to rename a post office in Alexandria for a letter carrier shot and killed while delivering mail to the parish courthouse in 2007.
Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and is on Twitter @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of national government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.