After an intense week in D.C., I spent the weekend catching up on Jenn’s honey-do list, including trimming the oak tree.” So said Congressman Steve Scalise’s Facebook page on Sunday, three days after the Louisiana Republican staged an impressive victory in the House majority whip election. To his constituents, the status update was little surprise. They know him as a refreshingly down-to-earth, middle-class professional in a Congress populated by politicians who are anything but.
Scalise’s first-ballot win over Congressmen Peter Roskam and Marlin Stutzman is important for more than just reasons of state. He is the first red-state Republican to hold a position in the House GOP’s core leadership since Tom DeLay left office in 2003. Moreover, Scalise managed to ascend to the number three position in his party’s hierarchy just seven years after joining the House of Representatives in 2007.
Most significant is the foothold in GOP leadership Scalise gives the party’s newest breed of die-hard conservatives. While he isn’t being called a Tea Party Republican per se—Scalise’s full-throated style predated the rise of the Tea Party movement—his ideological leanings mirror those of congressmen elected in 2010 and later. That helped him carry an apparently significant number of the newer and more conservative members of his caucus on the way to victory.
As the leader of the conservative, 170-member Republican Study Committee, Scalise had a strong base to build on while running for whip—a position cleared by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s shocking GOP primary loss to insurgent candidate Dave Brat and subsequent resignation that prompted the previous whip, Kevin McCarthy, to run for and win Cantor’s job. While there were complaints by some about Scalise’s performance as RSC chair, especially after he fired its chief of staff Paul Teller over Teller’s leaking of RSC deliberations to activist groups, his release of a much-touted Obamacare alternative increased the committee’s profile. Now that Scalise is the majority whip, that alternative, the American Health Care Reform Act, might get a fuller airing and perhaps even a vote on the House floor. Scalise’s plan, according to the RSC website, includes fully repealing Obamacare, allowing Americans to purchase health insurance across state lines, expanding access to Health Savings Accounts, and prohibiting the federal funding of abortions.
The bill currently sits in the House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions. It answers Democrat accusations that Republicans lack alternatives to Obamacare with commonsense changes to the status quo that don’t destroy private health insurance or exacerbate the supply-and-demand problems roiling that sector of the economy.
At RSC, Scalise has also championed a 2015 budget that limits federal spending at 18.1 percent of GDP and caps discretionary spending at $950 billion, a pre-2008 budget level that would balance by 2018. He’s also pushing a Jobs Act that contains a whole host of conservative priorities, including the Keystone XL Pipeline, repealing the Davis-Bacon Act, natural gas exports, sweeping deregulation, and drilling in ANWR.
As whip, Scalise has greater influence to turn his RSC work into policy. That is what makes his victory in Thursday’s election important for the Republican base. Since the 2010 elections returned the GOP to the majority, the fact that conservatives have not more forcefully advanced policy has been a source of consternation among the voters who put them there. Speaker John Boehner is from purple Ohio, Cantor from purple Virginia, and McCarthy from deep-blue California.
With Scalise, the GOP leadership is getting an infusion of red-state conservatism. To the extent the whip is able to drive policy—Scalise’s track record of creating majorities among his peers during his rapid rise into leadership suggests he might have more influence than anyone in his position since DeLay—his office could become a powerful force.
That is, when he’s not taking care of the oak tree back in Jefferson, Louisiana.