Three former members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation regaled a rapt crowd Thursday with stories from the nearly seven decades combined that they spent representing the state in Washington and reflected on how things have changed since they left office.
U.S. Sen. John Breaux and ex-U.S. Reps. Billy Tauzin and Rodney Alexander, who are all now Washington lobbyists, got together during the Council for a Better Louisiana luncheon to discuss the polarization that they have seen in politics and the gridlock that has mired Washington. All shared particularly grim views of where things currently stand.
"Many of them just hate each other today," said Tauzin, 74, who represented Louisiana's 3rd District the U.S. House from 1980 to 2005.
"It's vastly different from the time that I was there," said Breaux, 73, who was in the Senate from 1987 to 2005 and represented Louisiana's then-7th District in the U.S. House from 1972 to 1987.
"The Republicans are fighting each other. The Democrats are fighting each other. Both parties are fighting one another," said Alexander, 70, who represented Louisiana's 5th Congressional District from 2003 to 2013.
Tauzin, who switched from being a Democrat to being a Republican in 1995, said there used to be a deal among the Louisiana delegation to support one another across party lines: "We would fight open seats tooth and nail, but when someone enters the delegation, we would always be a team."
"We wanted to be a team for the good of our state: Democrats and Republicans," he said.
That isn't so much of an issue in Louisiana today because there is only one Democrat among the eight members of Louisiana's delegation.
Breaux said he was recently approached by a current U.S. senator who he did not name but said he had encouraged to run for Senate.
"Damn, Breaux, you told me this was a great place to be," Breaux said the unnamed senator told him. This year the chamber frequently has mostly party-line votes and tense sparring among members of opposing parties.
"The middle has become smaller and smaller," Breaux said.
All three former lawmakers said that they believe that today's politics have become more polarized because of a combination of things, including the 2010 redistricting cycle and dirty campaigns.
"If you want to become a candidate now from a hard right or hard left district you have to be the most hard right or most hard left candidate to win the primary," Tauzin said. "The primary is where the battles are fought and you have to be the hardest right or left to win. That's horrible for our country."
Alexander, who made a last-minute party switch from Democrat to Republican that angered many of his former Democratic colleagues, said his tenure stretched into the partisan shift. He mentioned discouraging discussions he had with Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who was House minority leader during Alexander's first term and today.
He once cosponsored legislation to allow oil drilling in Alaska, he recalled. Pelosi approached him to ask why he would sign onto the bill.
"I said, 'That's how you get the oil out of the ground,'" Alexander said. "Needless to say she didn't like that."
Alexander said he was further warned that he didn't fit the Democratic Party mold.
"You are disappointing people in Washington that can help you," Alexander said Pelosi told him.
Alexander said it prompted him to wonder, what about people back home?
Each shared stories of working with people of other parties.
Breaux recalled bipartisan barbecues and members grabbing drinks with members from the other party. "It's a lot harder to stab someone in back if you have dinner with them the night before," he said.
Alexander said he also thinks that one of the solutions to partisanship is Republicans and Democrats spending more time talking to one another.
"We've gotten away from that," he said. "We need to get back to that in some way."