Congress Immigration (copy) (copy)

The Capitol Dome of the Capitol Building at sunrise, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON — When the U.S. House of Representatives gavels in for the first time next month, Louisiana's Republican members of Congress will find themselves in a long-unfamiliar position: out of power.

Five of the state’s six congressmen are Republicans, the result of a years-long surge in Republican power in the state, meaning the big November midterm gains by Democrats will diminish the political muscle most of Louisiana’s representatives in Washington are accustomed to flexing.

Several longtime watchers of Congress told The Advocate that Louisiana’s clout in Congress — already somewhat diminished by high turnover and relatively low seniority — will dwindle now that most of its members are in the minority.

But while individual political power may wane with the political tides, Louisiana’s lawmakers said they remain confident they can push through important local-interest legislation through relationships they’ve built with other lawmakers and the rising stature of Louisiana’s lone Democrat in Congress, New Orleans Rep. Cedric Richmond.

Only one of Louisiana’s House members — Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson — has served through a change in power before. Scalise was first elected to Congress in 2008, two years before Republicans swept out then-Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi and took control in the House.

All five other Louisiana congressmen were elected since then.

“It’s just a fact of Congress that when you’re in the minority, you have less influence,” said Matthew Green, a political scientist at Catholic University of America in D.C. who studies congressional power. “That’s especially true of the House of Representatives. When a state has a delegation largely from one party, then which party controls Congress has a big effect on the clout of that state.”

Sarah Binder, a professor at George Washington University and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that far more power is allocated to the party holding the majority in the House. 

“Finding yourself in the minority party overnight, that’s a really big blow to your ability to pursue your state’s interests,” she said.

Republicans, of course, still control the White House under President Donald Trump and expanded their majority in the U.S. Senate. Relationships with the Trump administration will continue to give Louisiana lawmakers an avenue to influence the government.

But within the House, the move from majority to minority will give Republicans far less legislative authority.

No one’s fortunes reversed more dramatically with the midterm results than Scalise, the House majority whip and No. 3 ranking Republican. Scalise spent much of the past year campaigning for fellow Republicans and jockeying with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, to succeed retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin.

If Republicans had held off Democrats and clung to the majority in the midterms, Scalise likely would have moved up to majority leader or even claimed the speakership. Instead, he’ll settle into the next two years as the House minority whip, a position that carries diminished clout in a chamber where the majority rules.

The position will give Scalise some sway in negotiations. But Democratic leadership will now control the House calendar, write most legislation, decide which bills come to a vote and dictate which amendments to consider.

Endorsements of McCarthy from Scalise, Ryan doesn't put end to GOP leadership speculation

It’s a different story for Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans, the state’s lone Democrat in Washington, who has never served in the majority. Richmond was first elected to Congress in 2010, a rough year for Democrats  that saw the party lose its control of the House.

Richmond will hand off the chairmanship of the influential Congressional Black Caucus in January. But the 45-year-old has been tapped as a chief deputy to House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-South Carolina, and is seen as a rising talent in a party whose top leadership ranks are all aging.

Most Louisiana Republicans pointed in part to strong working relationships with Richmond when asked how they’ll continue pushing state-level priorities with Democrats in charge. Louisiana members of Congress and congressional aides have said Richmond has forged close links with the rest of the delegation.

The state’s other Republican members — Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto; Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge; Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre; and Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier — will become backbenchers for the minority party.

Johnson, a fast-rising 46-year-old religious conservative, was tapped as the next chairman of the sizeable conservative House Republican Study Committee and has close ties to the House Freedom Caucus, the hardline right flank of the House GOP.

The rapid promotion puts Johnson in position to shape conservative thinking among his Republican colleagues. But that influence won’t immediately translate into legislation because the Democratic majority is unlikely to take much interest in the conservative ideas and the stripped-down federal budget the Republican Study Committee pushes.

Louisiana’s Republican members can still “parlay your connections and relationship into beneficial policy outcomes,” said Joshua Stockley, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana-Monroe. But as members of the minority without high-ranking committee assignments, Stockley said, they’ll find it more challenging to shape major legislation.

“Being able to attach certain riders or amendments, influence how legislation is written — that’s how people like Rep. Graves and Rep. Abraham were able to secure some of the benefits for their constituents that they could. Well, that changes,” Stockley said.

Republican loss of power will be a blow to the state’s clout, Graves acknowledged in an interview. Some policies Graves has pushed, such as adding work and job-training requirements to the federal food snap program, won’t get any traction with the new Democratic majority.

But the Baton Rouge congressman noted that he’s worked closely with a number of prominent Democrats on intricate policy issues — like inefficiencies within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, levee improvements and reforms to federal disaster policy — that aren’t as rife with partisan divisions.

“If we come up with good policy solutions, we can shop it to Democratic offices we work well with. You’ve got to adapt your strategy to the conditions you’re operating in,” Graves said. “I think we’ll be able to continue to deliver things for the state.”

The relatively small states of the Deep South — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia — once held outsized sway in Washington by keeping the same lawmakers in Congress for decades, accumulating seniority and plum committee positions.

In Louisiana, that’s no longer the case. The longest-serving lawmaker in Louisiana’s delegation is Scalise, whose decade of service is a shorter tenure than the average current House member.

Scalise managed to rapidly ascend the House leadership ranks — and other members of Louisiana’s delegation have established enough expertise to make them influential members in certain policy areas.

But none have become chairs of House committees, an influential perch that generally requires a degree of seniority and comes with considerable power to shape legislation.

It’s been nearly 15 years since Chackbay Democrat-turned-Republican Billy Tauzin, the last Louisiana member to chair a House committee, helmed the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Tauzin held that gavel from 2001 to early 2004.

Rep. Jim McCrery, R-Shreveport, served as the top Republican on the powerful tax writing House Ways and Means Committee and would have become chairman if the Republicans had held control of the House in 2006 midterm elections. Instead, Democrats surged to power and New York City Congressman Charles Rangel got the chairmanship. McCrery retired from Congress two years later.

Jefferson Parish Republican Bob Livingston held the powerful Appropriations Committee gavel from 1995 until he gave it up in 1999 to accept the speakership, a position he never held because he resigned instead following revelations of an extramarital affair.

Livingston was among the first wave of Republicans elected from Louisiana after decades of single-party rule by conservative Southern Democrats in the state. Those powerful Southern Democrats included House Majority Leader Hale Boggs — killed in a plane crash in Alaska in 1972 — and his widow and successor Lindy Boggs, who spent 18 years in the House.

Whether the change in power is a good thing likely depends more on political preferences than Louisiana’s relative clout in Congress.

Richmond noted that the new Democratic majority in the House would block what he viewed as harmful Trump policies and veto any effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which funded the expansion of Medicaid in Louisiana to cover more than 450,000 low-income state residents and guaranteed insurance coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions — though the balance of power on Capitol Hill won’t factor into a current court battle over the law’s constitutionality.

But Scalise has warned in regular national television appearances that the new Democratic majority will make it more difficult to enact Trump’s agenda of tax cuts and the repeal of environmental and workplace regulations. Other Louisiana Republicans echoed that view, arguing those policies have driven recent economic growth.

And then there are a handful of important legislative battles where regional alliances matter far more than partisanship. In some fights, Louisiana Republicans said they anticipate newly empowered House Democrats might end up being better negotiating partners.

“There are some issues — flood insurance, for example — where it may be easier,” said Kennedy. “It depends on the approach that the Democratic majority takes.”


Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.