Within the ever-shifting ranks of power that is the United States Congress, the majority and minority whips remain atop the hierarchy of influence within their respective parties.
Netflix’s hit series “House of Cards,” sensationalized the position of whip in contemporary culture, following as it did a fictional congressman, Frank Underwood, on his exploitative rise to power.
New Orleans native Steve Scalise, who represents Louisiana’s 1st District in the U.S. House and serves as the real-life minority whip for the Republican Party, chuckles at the joking references to the show that he and his Democratic counterpart, majority whip Jim Clyburn, frequently hear.
Scalise’s influence within the Republican party is undeniable. After serving 12 years in the Louisiana House of Representatives, he made his way to D.C., where he was quickly anointed majority whip of the Republican House — a position he held until Republicans lost their majority in 2018. He was named minority whip in January 2019.
Today, for those who serve in the nation’s capital, no one is equidistant from the growing divide of opposing political ideologies. Scalise is constantly thrust into the public eye on every major news network across the nation, tasked with vocalizing the Republican Party’s agenda and talking points. But no matter what side of the aisle one subscribes to, the intrigue and respect for Scalise’s influence on his party is well documented in political circles.
The House minority whip visited Key West this past week, alongside U.S. Congressman Carlos Gimenez, who represents the Keys and Florida’s 26th Congressional District in the U.S. House.
During his stay, the Keys Weekly caught up with Scalise, who fielded questions about some of the nation’s most contentious issues. From his recent opposition to a formal inquiry on the Capitol riots, to his remarkable recovery following the 2017 shootings at a congressional baseball game, Scalise offered us full access on a range of notable topics.
KW: In recent years and months, we’ve had many prominent Republican leaders visit Key West, including Mick Mulvaney and John Boehner. Are Key West and the Florida Keys becoming a strategic political location for the party?
S.S.: Well, Florida is wide open right now and you still have a lot of states like New York and California that are mostly closed. If you are planning events it’s a lot easier to come down to Florida because you know it’s open. I just got in (to Key West) yesterday and I leave tomorrow. But it’s just beautiful down here. You’ve got great weather, you’re right at the southernmost tip of the country with a really well-run state. It’s just nice to be here.
KW: For those who only see you on television fielding trending issues and topics, what can you tell readers about some items you’re working on now and some achievements you are most proud of during your career in politics?
S.S.: I’m really proud of the efforts I’ve made both in the statehouse and in Congress, to help restore Louisiana’s coast. Of all of the Federal issues I’ve worked on, I’m most proud of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. I was the majority whip, and Kevin Brady, the lead author of the bill as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, he and I were roommates and we worked very closely with President Trump to get our country competitive again and to cut taxes and to bring jobs back to America. And to raise wages for families and to see that work better than anybody would have expected—and to see that improve the lives of people all across the country was incredibly rewarding.
KW: What about local initiatives?
S.C: Just as you’ve got the Florida Everglades, we’ve been losing about a football field of land every hour for decades in Louisiana. I’ve helped to get billions of dollars from both the offshore drilling we do in the Gulf of Mexico as well as from the BP Oil Spill settlement. We were able to pass the Restore Act and I was the lead author of that bill, which helped all of the Gulf States, including Florida. And in Louisiana we used that money to restore our coast.
KW: For those who only know the “whip” from watching “House of Cards,” how do you explain what you really do?
S.S.: (laughing) If you watch “House of Cards,” you are very afraid of crossing me (continuing to laugh). As much as I hate to burst everybody’s bubble, the real job is not like that. The best part of the job of being whip is you work with all of the members of the Republican conference. I’m the Republican whip. And every now and then I work with the Democrat whip, Jim Clyburn. He and I have a very good relationship. The main job is to bring everyone together on items that you are either supporting or opposing as a conference. I spend a lot of time helping educate members on questions about part of a bill they either support, want to change or oppose. You work a lot of policy and you build a lot of relationships. That’s what I love about it most.
KW: You said something interesting regarding the good relationship you have with your Democratic counterpart, Jim Clyburn, that offers a good segue. The wound that seems to be deepening is the polarity of American politics. Can we heal this problem and is there an answer to our differences?
S.S.: It’s really unfortunate that we are at such a toxic and divided point in our nation’s history. We’ve been here before, but it’s not often and we need to get back to building those relationships to find common ground. And what I’ve always found is that we all have differences with each other. But in politics today I feel that too many people are making their differences personal. And once you start attacking someone personally because of a political difference, that’s when things break down. And I think we need to tone down the rhetoric.
KW: Inflation seems to be looming over us as a nation as prices rise on everyday consumer items. What is being done, at least from your side, to protect Americans from this threat and can we avoid a repeat of the inflation we faced in the late ’70s?
S.S.: Unfortunately President Biden is bringing a lot of the failed policies from the 1970s back here to America in the way of gas lines and higher prices at the pump. If you’re trying to build a house right now it’s 25 to 30% more. Lumber alone is 400% higher than it was a year ago. Even if you go to the grocery store, just basic food items are more expensive. And President Biden has pushed policies that are paying millions of people not to work right now when there are millions of job openings and that’s really disrupted the supply chain and made things more expensive for people. And we’ve got to get back to a normal, traditional economy and stop printing money like it’s going out of style, because that’s what’s making inflation higher.
KW: It’s impossible to speak to you and not ask about your horrifying experience in June 2017, when you were shot at a congressional baseball game. Did that change your approach to politics and how did it affect your view on life outside of politics?
S.S.: The shooting in 2017 was nearly catastrophic. The shooter wanted to kill every Republican on that ball field and had the weapons to do it. And fortunately, we had a lot of miracles that day, and we had two brave Capitol Police officers with me as part of my security detail as majority whip (David Bailey and Crystal Griner) who are the textbook definition of true heroes. They both got shot during the shootout and took the shooter down. But in terms of my outlook, I spent the next two months fighting for my life and having to learn how to walk again and it really put into perspective the things that are really important in life. For three and a half months, I was in the hospital and I couldn’t even go to work. But I had to put all of my energy into what was important during that time and it was spending time with my family, who gave me incredible strength. And prayers from people all across the country gave me strength. I have a strong faith and it probably sharpened my faith and sharpened my focus on the things that are really important in life. You know, each day you can wake up and find 10 things that are bad, and really focus on that…or you can focus on the blessings that we do have that are good.
KW: Everyone is talking about the Capitol riots right now and an investigative commission that you voted against. I want to ask you, why not a commission? And if not, what is the appropriate response?
S.S.: There are many criminal investigations already going on and hundreds of arrests, as there should be, on the people that illegally broke into the Capitol that day. They need to be held accountable and many are already being held accountable and there are trials going on. But one of the things we raised concerns about long before Jan. 6 was the violence we were seeing throughout our country. Every major city was having violent outbreaks. There were riots. They burned buildings down. Cops were murdered. Civilians were murdered during protests. Some might have been peaceful, but many were violent and deadly and there has been no investigations into that. So we wanted to broaden the scope to look at all forms of political violence that we have seen in this last year. And it seems like (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi wants to turn a blind eye to all of those other things that happened.
KW: The legitimacy of the election is still a talking point for many Republicans. As far as the next presidential election, what do you believe it will look like in America?
S.S.: What it should look like is each state following the actual laws that their state legislatures passed. Because that is what the constitution actually calls for. The United States Constitution and when our framers wrote it, they talked about the electors for president. They didn’t say the states determine the rules. They said the state legislatures determine the rules. They were very clear about that and in many states they have gotten away from that, whether it’s a Secretary of State in Georgia just making up his own rules or local courts changing the rules established by the legislature and then nobody knows what the rules really are. I would hope that we have a fair set of rules in each state. I would like to have standards where we know what the election results are on election night. I think it’s becoming more concerning to people when they see some states get their election results in by 10 p.m. and some states are still finding ballots weeks and weeks later. That undermines confidence in the electoral process.
KW: I would be remiss if I did not ask you this question, as Key West prides itself on being “One Human Family” and boasts a vibrant LGBT community. Your record on LGBT rights, particularly same-sex marriage, would obviously not be favorable to many here. Pride is kicking off here this week and If you were able to sit and have lunch with someone from the LGBT community, how would you explain your views to them and do you have common ground?
S.S. Look, I have respect for everybody to live their life as they want. But I also respect other people’s views and values. And for example, marriage, that’s a state by state decision and each state ought to be able to debate and make those rules and you shouldn’t be violating people’s religious beliefs either. I believe there has been a big undermining of religious freedom in this country over the last 20 years (or more). And that’s concerning as well and I would like to see us get back to respect for religious freedoms and the ability for states to actually run their business. Whether it’s dealing with marriage laws or life. Look, the Supreme Court is getting ready to take on a big case on life, and whether states can truly set their own limitations on abortions and that’s an important case. And I hope the Mississippi law that is in question is upheld … so let’s get back to that rule of law.
KW: I realize that’s not an easy question but it is one that I know is important to readers here in Key West. Whether many of us agree, I still appreciate your willingness to answer it for us.
S.S.: Of course. No, these are all fair.
KW: To close, It now seems that both sides are starting to ask more questions around a theory that COVID-19 originated in a lab in Wuhan, China. Can you tell us more about this theory and whether you are receiving credible information?
S.S.: Many of us have been calling for an investigation for more than a year because we were hearing early in 2020 the virus was started in a lab and there was not a normal bat-to-human transfer, which is what we were being told at the time. Just in the last few days, some shocking and revealing emails have come out from Dr. Fauci that shows that even he was made aware that the virus was possibly made in a lab. And he didn’t share that with the president’s coronavirus task force, from people I’ve spoken to. And many people were calling us conspiracy theorists just for promoting the suggestion it might have been started in a lab — and it turns out now that it may be true. And even now Speaker Pelosi won’t call a hearing on this. I’ve been very vocal, as many others have, that Speaker Pelosi needs to have a full investigation into the origin of this virus that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in America and millions of people locally — that it may have actually been engineered in that lab in Wuhan and we ought to know about that and get those answers. And she and President Biden should want to know about that.