Steve Scalise and Cedric Richmond argue — a lot. They did it on television this weekend, in a segment on CBS’s “Face the Nation” meant to highlight a longstanding friendship that dates back to their days in the Louisiana Legislature.
That really shouldn’t surprise anyone. The New Orleans-area congressmen are rising stars in opposing political parties — Scalise as the Republicans’ majority whip and Richmond as head of the overwhelmingly Democratic Congressional Black Caucus. And neither would ever be accused of being a centrist.
But here’s the good news. Despite nearly constant disagreements on health care, tax cuts, immigration and much more, these two care about each other. The bond was evident last year when Richmond rushed to the hospital after Scalise was shot during practice for the annual congressional baseball game, and again last week when Richmond helped Scalise onto the field for a triumphant return before he took his usual star turn on the pitching mound.
They even root for one another’s further ambitions, within limits. Each told host Margaret Brennan on Sunday that the other would make a great leader — of the House’s minority party.
But most important is the simple fact that they talk. And on the frequent occasions when they disagree, they don’t get personal.
Here’s how Scalise put it during the interview: “We're a divided nation right now. But if you look back at the history of our country, I mean, our founders set up a system of government where, with the rights of free speech. ... you can go out and disagree with people, and you can actually express those disagreements.”
And here was Richmond: “We just need to make sure that we judge people by a whole bunch of factors, but it shouldn't be political parties, shouldn't be race, shouldn't be gender, shouldn't be sexual orientation. It should just be whether the person is a nice person or not. And to the extent that you agree that the person is a nice person, then you try to find common ground.”
You don’t see a lot of that in Washington, D.C., these days.
And sadly, you see less and less of it back in the state Capitol where these two learned the ropes.
The never-ending budget showdown, which this week sent lawmakers into a seventh special legislative session in just three years, has put the shift on full display.
Despite over-the-top rhetoric about higher taxes versus smaller government, there’s no grand philosophical difference at stake. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards wants lawmakers to replace the expiring one-penny sale tax increase enacted two years ago, which was accompanied by a promise of structural tax reform that never happened, with a half-cent. The Republican leaders of the state House, Edwards’ chief adversaries, want a third of a cent. The difference amounts to 17 cents per $100 spent on goods other than food, utilities, and prescription drugs, which are exempt from state taxes. Anything short of the half-cent would lead to drastic cuts, including to the TOPS scholarships that are popular in many Republican districts, as well as some safety net programs.
The sides aren’t as set as they are in D.C. Most of the Republican-majority Senate and a decent complement of reasonably minded House Republicans are OK with the Edwards plan, although so far not enough to give it the supermajority it needs to pass the chamber. Another group of House Republicans won’t vote for any taxes at all. And at a few stages during the process, the all-Democratic Legislative Black Caucus has broken with the Democratic administration.
But the dynamic is depressingly similar. Some independent House Republicans have gone so far as to call out their own leadership for wanting to deprive Edwards of a political win. And it’s only likely to get worse after next year’s election, once term limits force many veteran senators from the congressmen’s era out of office.
Of course, Scalise and Richmond are as ideologically committed as anyone else in Washington, and there’s no guarantee relations would improve if either were in charge, although it’s hard to imagine how things could be worse.
But there’s still time to slow the trend toward political paralysis in the Legislature — that is, if enough leaders in Baton Rouge heed what Scalise and Richmond say, regardless of what they do.