A year from now, U.S. Sen. David Vitter will be busy packing up his Washington office after falling far short in his attempt to be Louisiana’s next governor. The same goes for U.S. Reps. Charles Boustany and John Fleming, neither of whom is planning to run for re-election next fall. Last year it was former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s turn.
Doesn’t anyone from the Louisiana delegation want to stick around and climb the ladder anymore?
Well, sure they do. Landrieu, of course, had hoped to be a year into her fourth term by now, before Bill Cassidy’s victory put an end to that plan. Vitter couched his dramatic election-night announcement that he wouldn’t seek re-election in the philosophical language of term limits, but the reality is that both the voters and his own party’s elders had let him know that it was time to move on. Boustany and Fleming are both planning to run for Vitter’s open seat, so one or possibly both could be heading into retirement.
Everyone’s particular circumstances aside, the collective effect is that Louisiana is about to take yet another hit in Washington.
In the Senate, Landrieu and Vitter had a combined 30 years’ experience in the chamber, and the fact that they hailed from different parties guaranteed Louisiana choice committee chairmanships no matter which party controls Congress. Come January 2017, the state will have one senator with two years on the job, plus one rookie, and both may well be Republicans. Practically speaking, there’s not much prospect of a senator playing a major role under either party’s rule.
The House delegation will be depleted, as well.
Majority Whip Steve Scalise survived the recent GOP leadership shake-up and remains a major figure, and Cedric Richmond, the delegation’s last Democrat standing, seems to be settling in for the long haul. But with Boustany’s likely departure, the state loses a senior vote on the Ways & Means Committee, which oversees the tax code, as well as a major establishment voice. Fleming is a leader of the all-or-nothing Freedom Caucus, so his loss might actually improve Congress’s functionality. Ralph Abraham and Garret Graves have promising paths, but both are freshmen and may take a while to build up much power.
Does any of that matter? Maybe not as much as it once did, in this era of higher turnover and increased partisanship, frequent disruption from those who would once have waited their turn and scarce federal resources. But still, the answer is yes.
Louisiana once punched above its weight on Capitol Hill. The list of past power brokers is long and impressive, featuring the likes of Russell Long, Hale Boggs, Billy Tauzin, Bob Livingston and many more.
In recent years, though, the revolving door has been spinning nonstop, and Louisiana has repeatedly returned to the back of the line. If Boustany wins the Senate seat, he’ll be the delegation’s dean, with 12 years on the Hill. If not, the honor will fall to Scalise, who has been in Congress for less than a decade.
The state felt the difference in 2005, when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit at a low point for Louisiana’s Congressional power. This was six years after Livingston, the former Appropriations Committee chairman who’d been chosen as speaker of House, resigned in a sex scandal. So rather than a champion for the area’s needs, the man in charge was Dennis Hastert, who questioned whether the damaged areas should be rebuilt at all. And much of what Louisiana did get out of Congress was spillover from better-positioned Mississippi.
The state’s standing later improved, thanks, in no small part, to Landrieu’s seniority on key committees when the Democrats retook control. Her argument that clout counted fell flat during last year’s highly partisan election, though, and voters traded her in for Cassidy, a House member who vowed to oppose President Barack Obama at every turn. In a sad commentary on the state of play in Washington, Landrieu recently told Bloomberg Government that it’s easier to get things done in her new role of lobbyist than it was in the Senate.
Ironically, one of the biggest victories for their constituents in recent years was an uneasy joint production from Landrieu and Cassidy, a rewrite of National Flood Insurance program that headed off devastating rate increases. A lot came together to make that happen: Both parties wanted to give their standard-bearer an election-year issue, officials in other powerful states were also clamoring for a fix, and Scalise and Richmond got involved as well. Pursuing such local priorities may be more difficult for Scalise in the future, though, particularly when it puts him at odds with major forces in the party he now helps lead.
Nobody knows when such needs will arise again. The one thing that’s clear is that, once again, Louisiana will probably be playing from a position of weakness, not strength.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.