How To Play The Game
Hearts & Clubs
Congressman Steve Scalise may have little in common with the cutthroat, homicidal main character of Netflix’s Emmy-nominated House of Cards, but he holds his own in one of the most powerful positions on the Hill.
It was June 18, 2014, the night before Congressman Steve Scalise, a Jefferson Parish Republican sent to D.C. by voters in 2008, would find out if he would become only the second Louisiana member of Congress to serve as whip since late Congressman Hale Boggs held the position for the Democrats from 1962 to 1971.
The smell of seafood in the air mixed with anticipation as Scalise addressed his team inside a private room in Acadiana, a fish house in Washington D.C. with a New Orleans chef and menu. Acadiana is located on K Street, one of Washington’s major thoroughfares of power and home to the offices of the nation’s most influential lobbyists and special interests.
That evening it was as if the street were curving downward in a slight bend, stretched by the weight of Scalise in the middle as he was coming into his own. In less than 24 hours, his life would change forever.
Hollywood vs. Reality
“For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.”
–Frank Underwood, Majority Whip in Netflix’s “House of Cards”
“With any kind of relationship you ought to confront your differences right away and get it out of the way.”
–Congressman Steve Scalise, Majority Whip
Bringing a hometown flavor to the House
With a nod to the Saints’ unforgettable Super Bowl year, and to cheers from staffers, consultants and supporters, Scalise handed out red Marucci baseball bats to his whip campaign team, the folks who had spent weeks working over other congressmen to secure their votes. Inscribed on the bats: “Bring the Wood.”
The next morning, with the U.S. House scheduled to hold leadership elections that afternoon, Scalise attended practice for the summer’s congressional baseball game, an annual event that pits Republicans against Democrats. He worked in politics between swings, eye ever on the prize.
Throughout the rest of the day, his campaign team checked off names on their blue clipboards, complete with red “Geaux Scalise” stickers, whipping votes for the whip election.
There were roughly 40 members of Congress on the whip campaign team, but Scalise had also called up Jason Hebert of The Political Firm, among others, to help out. Former congressman Jeff Landry of New Iberia traveled to the Hill as well to lobby his former colleagues.
At one point during the day, reporters from The Washington Post caught Scalise storming into his office, a cell phone pressed to his ear. Directions were shouted to the team.
“No deals with anybody,” Scalise chirped. “We’re going to win this thing.”
That was the general impression, even 1,100 miles away in Louisiana. Still, there was an unknown factor to the day’s outcome.
According to a member of the campaign team, interviewed after the historic vote that put Scalise over the top, “When you’re running a traditional election, you can build an apparatus to figure out how you’re doing and where you are. But today we walked in and it was in God’s hands. Confidence was high, but with the secret balloting process, we just didn’t know.”
Another source close to the process said some higher-ups in the House leadership let it be known that, despite the secret balloting, Scalise won the whip position by a wide margin.
“It sounds like he crushed it,” said the source, repeating what he had heard.
As for the day’s lighter moments, one staffer noted with a laugh, “There was a noticeable absence of ‘House of Cards’ references. I was expecting more, aside from questions back home asking if this was what Frank Underwood did.”
Fast forward three months
On Sept. 29 Scalise was back in his district office off Veterans Memorial Boulevard in New Orleans. Surrounded by photos of powerful friends in D.C. and Mardi Gras trinkets, Scalise took it all in.
With Congress in recess, this was his chance to breathe and enjoy it, although a Secret Service detail outside his door was a reminder of how far he had come. As majority whip, Scalise is third in line in the leadership, which places only the majority leader and the speaker of the House above him.
Slightly balding and not the tallest or richest member of Congress, quick with a smile and a wink from his pale blue eyes, Scalise’s friends contend he’s still the same modest guy he has always been – except now with body guards who also accompany him home.
“That is a big change,” he said with equal parts amazement and trepidation, glancing outside his office.
So what does the majority whip do? The only access much of the public has to the job is through Netflix, which remade the BBC’s “House of Cards” for an American audience in 1993 to much fanfare. The show stars Kevin Spacey as an overly ambitious majority whip who is not above using unscrupulous tactics, including murder, in his ultimate goal to become president of the United States.
“I finally started watching it,” Scalise said when asked about the Emmy-nominated series. “I’m seeing what Kevin Spacey does with the position. I did meet him. I was on the whip team several years ago when the show first started production and they brought him to a meeting. He takes a little different approach to how we do things. That’s how Hollywood does it.”
In contrast to the drama of Hollywood, here’s how Scalise describes his job: “The basic responsibility of the whip when a bill comes to the floor is to make sure it has the 218 votes needed to pass. My job is to count how many Republicans are voting for it.”
There’s a bit more to it than that. In addition to helping steer the party’s policy agenda, Scalise is expected to turn nay votes into yea votes. Sometimes that’s easier said than done and past whips have been known to really turn the screws on members who didn’t want to swallow what the party was pushing.
Scalise, however, in his very brief tenure, has gained a reputation for being thoughtful and evenhanded.
Since opportunities to whip important votes were rare during the summer and fall, Scalise instead curried favor by overseeing the remodeling of the cloak room in the old House chamber, where Abraham Lincoln once met with friends and talked around a fireplace more than 100 years ago. Scalise reopened the lounge area to members in September and it now includes artifacts from the former president’s life in politics.
“We got everyone together for jambalaya, gumbo and boudin,” he said.
A nod to his roots, Scalise sported his Archbishop Rummel High School baseball jersey this year while participating in the annual congressional baseball game.
Speaking at the weekly House Leadership press conferences in D.C. Photos courtesy of the office of Congressman Steve Scalise.
Taking no chances
Scalise was able to run for whip during the ongoing term because former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia unexpectedly lost his re-election bid this summer and resigned from his post, setting up the leadership swap.
Pundits contend one of the reasons Cantor was booted out by voters was because he lost touch with his home district and focused more on the District of Columbia. Scalise, obviously, didn’t want to repeat the same blunder.
Although he could have phoned it in, Scalise initiated a six-figure media buy this fall for his congressional re-election campaign, despite not facing serious opposition. The spot, called “Pass the Popcorn,” cleverly casted Scalise as the star of a movie trailer. (Yes, like Spacey.) While some questioned the need for such a huge buy, one operative noted dryly, “He doesn’t want to go full-Cantor.”
Baptism by fire
In his first real test as whip in late July, Scalise and the GOP leadership failed to cobble together enough votes to pass legislation addressing the steady flow of unaccompanied minors across the U.S. border. Surprisingly or not, he received pushback from a member of his home delegation.
Teaming up with other conservatives, Congressman John Fleming, a Shreveport Republican, caused the leadership to shelve its proposal and present a compromise the following day. Overnight, though, the national media turned on Scalise and the leadership, not knowing a solution was in the works.
“It was a baptism by fire,” Scalise said. “It was literally my first day on the job.”
A senior GOP staffer, predicting the conservative faction will continue to be a problem for Scalise, said, “This was not some great principled stance. This was political. I think they wanted to make a statement about the new leadership team.”
While Scalise managed to salvage the border bill overnight and address amnesty concerns voiced by Fleming and other conservatives, the question remains whether Scalise will be able to continue to do so. If not, Fleming could get crossways with his fellow delegation member once again.
Doug Sachtleben, Fleming’s communications director, offered the following statement: “Rep. Fleming was encouraged that the new majority whip was able to move House leadership to work constructively with conservatives, and he is optimistic that this bodes well for the future.”
While Kevin Spacey’s character would have likely had his opposition “disposed of” in one way or another, Scalise knows it’s all part of the job.
“In the end every member has to vote which way their district wants them to vote,” he said. “John and I have a very good relationship, but he has a strong philosophy and I respect it and I understand it. So I can communicate with him on the policy side.”
One congressman, asking to remain anonymous, said Scalise was relentless in his pursuit of Fleming’s support but wasn’t heavy-handed. “He did lean on John a lot, but it was done in a way where good and reasonable arguments were presented,” the congressman said.
A congressional staffer added, “Steve never let up. I think it set a good tone for what can be expected. Everyone doesn’t want to follow the speaker’s lead, and Steve is working to find compromises for that. You get the sense, at least right now, that everything doesn’t have to flow in the same direction. He’s willing to take on twists and turns.”
What Scalise Means for Business
It has been quite a few terms since Louisiana had a lawmaker in a key House leadership position in Washington, D.C. But with Congressman Steve Scalise serving as the majority whip, business interests back in the Bayou State are pondering how that plays out for them.
Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said a recent trip to the nation’s capitol helped paint a decent picture of where it all may be heading.
“We’ve been able to brand ourselves as the center of a manufacturing renaissance in the country,” Waguespack said. “This is the perfect time for Steve to take on this role. He can help promote a state that is out-punching its weight. He’s also an excellent spokesperson and has an open door to business and industry.”
Scalise’s profile has certainly been raised and has attracted the fundraising attention of corporate America. He has a long list of new donors, including Amazon, Delta Air Lines, News Corp. and Procter & Gamble. He’s also traveling the country and appearing at campaign events for other members of Congress, grabbing opportunities when he can to promote Louisiana.
Coming from a state with a massive oil and gas industry, Scalise is also in an influential position when it comes to related policy. In September he helped move the American Energy Solutions for Lower Costs and More American Jobs Act, as well as the Jobs for America Act, through the House.
“As the representative of a region with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, I understand that a smart energy policy equates to more jobs and a healthy economy,” he said from the House floor.
More home state opposition
Aside from Fleming, Scalise has also had to deal with opposition from Congressman Charles Boustany, a Republican from Lafayette who instead backed Congressman Peter Roskam of Illinois for the whip position. Boustany offered up his vote to Roskam long before the mid-June election, and supposedly prior to Scalise’s entrance into the race.
Back home, the decision did not go over well.
“I was surprised and disappointed when I found out that Charles didn’t support Steve for the majority whip position,” said Louisiana House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, a Republican from Lake Charles. “I understand he may have made a commitment to someone else in that race, but you would think that guy would have given Charles a pass.”
Boustany and Scalise are said to have moved forward, at least publicly. Asked if he would vote for Scalise should another balloting be needed in November, Boustany said, “Without hesitation.”
For Scalise, it was another opportunity to show what kind of leader he wanted to be. “We’ve aired out our difference and I feel really good about where we are,” he said. “With any kind of relationship you ought to confront your differences right away and get it out of the way.”
Scalise with his wife and children in D.C. during the race.
Sharing his support of Israel’s right to self defense with the country’s ambassador, Ron Dermer. Photos courtesy of the office of Congressman Steve Scalise.
The Force is strong in him
By 1972, when his twin engine Cessna disappeared over Alaska, somewhere between Anchorage and Juneau, Boggs (the last Louisianan who served as whip) had climbed up to majority leader, as many whips do. It’s not unimaginable that Scalise could accomplish the same.
To be certain, Scalise was meticulous and shrewd on the path he took to the whip’s position. The math was behind him for the victory earlier this year, since he was chairing the 170-member Republican Study Committee and had served as the party’s recruiter for the freshman class last election cycle.
He had also taken up with a group of conservative lawmakers who refer to themselves as “The Jedi Council.” The conservative group includes one-time vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and fellow Congressmen Jeb Hensarling of Texas, along with Jim Jordan of Ohio and Tom Price of Georgia.
“We meet about every week or so,” Scalise said in an earlier interview about the group, which until recently was one of Washington’s best-kept secrets. Even top aides aren’t allowed in their meetings.
Given all of these factors taken in concert, it’s not totally unexpected that today Scalise is overseeing a 20-person staff out of the majority whip’s office. He is following in the footsteps of other well-known whips like Boggs, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, former Vice President Dick Cheney, Trent Lott and others.
The trick now is to not only leave his own mark, but plan for a political future than can take him, and Louisiana, further.
“It’s really neat I am able to be a part of that history,” said Scalise, one of those red Marucci baseball bats sitting by his side on the large table in his district office. “But I’m going to keep working hard. We’re only just getting started.”
Immediately following the secret ballot election among his colleagues, Scalise addressed the national media at a press conference and was later swarmed by more press to whom he reiterated his excitement in bringing a fresh new voice to the leadership table. Photo courtesy of the office of Congressman Steve Scalise.