The William Jefferson Chronicles

Louisiana loses more clout in D.C.'s halls of power
by Bruce Alpert, Washington bureau, The Times-Picayune
Sunday December 28, 2008, 8:34 PM

WASHINGTON -- The seniority of the Louisiana delegation, already in decline, took a real hit in the 2008 elections -- with its seven members' combined years of service less than those of just one of two departing representatives, Democrat William Jefferson or Republican Jim McCrery.

An indication of the slide: Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, with seven months' seniority, is serving as mentor for fellow Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao of New Orleans, the Vietnamese-American lawyer who defeated Jefferson in the December runoff.

It's not surprising, given that Scalise starts 2009 with the fourth-longest seniority in the delegation, which now includes three GOP freshmen: Cao, Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge and John Fleming of Minden.

Adding to the reduced clout: The House delegation has gone from three Democrats to just one -- Rep. Charlie Melancon of Napoleonville -- just as the House Democratic majority has grown and a Democrat, Barack Obama, is replacing Republican George W. Bush as president.

"The Bayou State has taken a tremendous hit in congressional influence just at the time when its continuing post-Katrina battle for recovery requires clout," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

It's a precipitous drop in influence, particularly from a decade ago, when the state delegation included the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Bob Livingston; the chairman of the House Energy Committee, Billy Tauzin; and one of the Senate's most influential members, John Breaux.

The news isn't entirely bleak. The first order of business for the new Congress will be adoption of a gigantic economic stimulus package to jump-start the stalled economy, which will pour tens of billions of dollars into the states, including Louisiana.

"Since the incoming Obama administration has strongly indicated they do not want earmarks in the stimulus package, seniority will play less a role of determining what makes it," Melancon said. "House leadership has indicated the stimulus will likely include funding for infrastructure projects and Medicaid, two spending priorities that will help cover our (state) budget shortfall."

Landrieu rises in Senate

In the Senate, Democrat Mary Landrieu, fresh off her re-election victory over Republican John Kennedy, starts her third six-year term with more influence -- in part because of the departure of three Democratic colleagues to the Obama administration: Joe Biden as vice president, Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state and Ken Salazar as interior secretary.

The turnover has helped give Landrieu her first full committee chairmanship, running the Small Business Committee.

On the down side, Democrats won't be as anxious to help her legislative agenda now that she has lost her title as the most vulnerable Senate Democratic incumbent. But conversely, Republicans won't be so inclined to block her bills to deny her positive pre-election publicity.

"It's true that she can't use the 'vulnerable senator' argument now, but she is moving up nicely in seniority," Sabato said. "There has been very substantial turnover in the Senate since she was elected 12 years ago."

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who faces re-election in 2010, sits in a body with at least seven fewer Republicans. But he talks optimistically about playing an important role. Senate rules often require 60 votes, meaning Vitter can work with fellow Republicans to block bills they oppose.

Vitter said he also hopes to work with Obama and Senate Democrats on issues they agree on, such as legalizing reimportation of cheaper prescription drugs from abroad.

On the down side, Vitter is likely to face Democratic efforts to deny him legislative victories -- much like Republicans did to Landrieu -- to boost their hopes of using his involvement with a Washington escort service to defeat him in 2010.

Experience evaporates

But it's in the House where the changes for Louisiana are most profound.

Gone is McCrery, a 20-year veteran of the lower chamber and top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, who is following Livingston, Tauzin and Breaux into a lucrative lobbying career. McCrery is credited with helping overcome opposition within the GOP caucus to Hurricane Katrina recovery money.

Jefferson, who suffered a surprise defeat to Republican Cao in December to end his 18-year House career, had been stripped 2 1/2 years ago of his Ways and Means Committee position as a result of the federal corruption investigation that targeted him, followed last year by a 16-count criminal indictment. He maintains his innocence and faces a likely trial during the first half of 2009.

Despite his legal problems, Jefferson still had influence with the Congressional Black Caucus and one of its most powerful members, House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina.

The other departure from the delegation, Rep. Don Cazayoux, D-New Road, had only served in Congress since winning a special election in May to replace veteran Republican lawmaker Richard Baker. Cazayoux lost to Cassidy in November's general election, giving him one of the shortest House tenures in history.

Calls for unity

Melancon, who has emerged as a leader in the House Blue Dogs Democratic group, now has more negotiating clout. President-elect Barack Obama and congressional Democratic leaders might need his conservative Democratic members to pass legislation.

Melancon said the delegation will need to work together to get things done. "Louisiana's lack of seniority will only be a problem if our delegation can't work together in a bipartisan manner to advocate for Louisiana's needs," Melancon said.

Scalise, who begins his first full two-year term in January, said he agrees with Melancon, but also points to what he believes will be his increased influence within the GOP caucus. Scalise said he has generated good relations with new leaders in the House GOP and points out that both Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are committed to helping Louisiana with its hurricane recovery needs.

"That's a moral obligation that we're going to hold them to," Scalise said.

There also might be some advantages as Congress takes up Obama's health care reform legislation. Louisiana has the only delegation with three doctors: Republican Rep. Charles Boustany of Lafayette and the newly elected Cassidy and Fleming.

"At the very least," Scalise said, "I feel real safe if I have any health problems."

Bruce Alpert can be reached at or 202.383.7861.

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