The rancor and animosity of both political parties in Washington seem to be at an all-time high. Both sides are calling their opponents “liars,” and there are reports of tension building to the point where fistfights have nearly broken out within same party caucuses. Louisiana members of congress say they have never seen such bitterness and vicious personal attacks.
Even Governor Bobby Jindal joined the fray by accusing his own political party of being irresponsible. “We are not going to allow the Republican Party to be defined by the dysfunction in Washington.” But the Governor and the Bayou State’s congressional delegation might take note that they represent a state that many believe is quite dysfunctional itself, with a long and colorful history of legislative brawls, viciously partisan debate and charges of lying.
I was in the middle of such a legislative altercation in my first few months as a Louisiana state senator back in 1972. A controversial proposal to create a new trade school system was up for final passage in the waning minutes of the legislative session. I sat next to Senator “Big Jim” Jumonville, who was as brash and tenacious in debate on the senate floor as they come. He just never took no for an answer. Jumonville was opposing last minute amendments that would take one of the trade schools out of his district and move it to Baton Rouge.
The legislation would die at the stroke of midnight, and the official clock high on the back wall of the senate chamber was ticking away. With only seconds left, Jumonville pulled off his boot and heaved it at the clock in an effort to stave off the deadline. He missed. Off came the other boot as Big Jim hollered out to his colleague at the podium, “You are a liar.” He then rose back to throw the remaining boot. I put myself in grave danger by grabbing Jumonville’s arm in an effort to calm him down. He missed the clock a second time, and time ran out. I don’t think Big Jim ever forgave me.
And who can forget the Governor Earl Long story of reneging on a promise to a group of south Louisiana constituents? The blow-by-blow account was given to me by my deceased old friend, Camille Gravel, who was on Long’s staff and a witness to the Governor’s comments. Long was reluctant to live up to a campaign commitment, and Gravel inquired as to what he should tell the group. Without batting an eye, Long told Gravel: “Just tell them I lied.”
Dutch Morial was Louisiana’s first black legislator, and went on to serve as a judge and two-term Mayor of New Orleans. With much humor and gusto, Dutch relished telling friends of his first day at the state capitol as a new legislator. Representatives have seatmates, with their two desks sitting side by side. As chance would have it, Dutch sat right next to Representative Jesse McLain, who represented an archconservative district in southeast Louisiana that had been a hotbed of Klu Klux Klan activity. Now Dutch was from a Creole background and quite light skinned. He had made numerous comments that it was time to bring some of the backward areas of the state into the 20th century and allow more opportunities for minorities.
As Dutch told me years later of that first day -- when he took his seat, Jesse leaned over and whispered: “Where’s that lyin’ N…..? (Yes the N word.) Dutch said he just smiled, looked around the room for a minute, then leaned over to Jesse, got right up in his face, and said: “You’re looking at him.” Then he burst out laughing. A flustered McClain excused himself from the legislature for the rest of the day.
Probably the most bizarre and tense situation I ever witnessed was during the 1967 Louisiana gubernatorial election. I was just out of the Army and had begun a new law practice in Ferriday. Conservative Congressman John Rarick was challenging the incumbent governor, John McKeithen, who was up for re-election. McKeithen had been the focus of a Life Magazine article that raised questions about the Governor’s possible ties to the New Orleans mafia. Rarick ran against “Big John” on this issue. I read in my local paper that the two candidates would speak at a rally in McKeithen’s hometown of Columbia in northeast Louisiana that evening, so I drove the 45-minute trip to see the incumbent and the challenger in action.
Rarick spoke first and immediately accused McKeithen of having mafia ties. Now this was Big John’s home territory and the locals were not too happy to hear Rarick’s charges. When he stepped off the stage, Sheriff Slim Hodges suggested that the congressman might want to “move on out of town” because of all the tension in the air.
McKeithen then took the stage, threw off his coat, loosened his tie, and held back no punches. “John Rarick’s a liar. That’s right, a down and dirty liar. The man lies. You folks know I’m not in no mafia…right?” The crowd in unison hollered, “Right, Governor!” Then they cheered McKeithen and booed Rarick for the rest of the night. I was enthralled and decided then to run for public office at the first opportunity. It came four years later when I was elected and began my political career as a new member of the Louisiana State Senate.
So as tensions continue to mount in the nation’s capitol, and fellow members of congress roll their eyes in disgust over the lack of civility, tell those congressmen from other states that they are playing softball in trying to reach compromise. If they want to learn how to experience real hardball politics, we can certainly find a “learning experience” for them here in Louisiana. We have plenty of political lyin,’fumin’ and fightin’” going on in the deepest of the deep southern states. Maybe it’s in the roux or the Tabasco sauce. But it’s always lively here when Louisiana politics is involved. So just come on down.
I picked up my daily newspaper on the first day of October, and three stories dominated the news. “The Government Shuts Down,” blared one headline. We have been hearing about this possibility for months as Republicans and Democrats, alike, have dug in their heels, with little effort to avert the closure of numerous government facilities.
Obamacare kicked off on the first day of the month facing a continuing barrage of criticism and unanswered questions. Again, this is a story that has been examined in massive detail since the day the healthcare law passed over two and a half year ago.
Then there was Biggert-Waters. Huh? Never head of it, you say? Well, it was federal legislation, passed without a discouraging word of protest, with the support of virtually every member of the Louisiana and Gulf Coast and East Coast legislative delegations. What will this new legislation do? Stick property owner in flood prone areas with rate increases that some news reports peg as high as 3000 percent.
“But we didn’t know,” protest many members of congress. Here’s what one of the main authors of the legislation had to say after these new unaffordable rate increases were authorized: "As one of the primary authors of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act and a longtime advocate for the people of southern Louisiana, I can state that it was never the intent of Congress to impose the types of punitive and unaffordable flood insurance premiums that residents of southern Louisiana are currently facing," Maxine Waters said. This is the lady who wrote the law, yet she candidly admits she had no idea of the detrimental effect she produced.
Unfortunately, the statement that “we didn’t know,” is true – and this should be of grave concern to every citizen. How does a law this damaging, or any law for that matter, just slip through the cracks? Don’t congressman and senators have staffs trained to monitor proposed legislation that directly affects their districts? Where’s the oversight; the checks and balances? It would seem that in way too many instances, members of congress just don’t know what they’re voting on, or what effect a new law will have on their constituents.
That’s hard to believe, considering the number of representative factions that supposedly keep a close eye on the daily activities of congress,. The average congressman has a staff of 15 employees and the average U.S. Senator hires 35 assistants. In addition, these same members of congress have access to various committee staffs. And that’s just the beginning. There are over 300 caucuses with staffers who supposedly keep an eye out for important legislation affecting their particular interests.
Then there are the lobbying interests. Highly paid lobbyists are retained by special interest groups galore, and numerous public bodies hire such lobbyists to look out for their country, parish, or city interests. In my home state of Louisiana, a number of former congressman and senators are well paid to keep an eye out for what can help or affect the local public bodies.
State officials have national organizations with Washington offices that have a paid staff to look out for legislations that can be detrimental on the local level. When the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act was first introduced, one could assume that it was immediately monitored by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. Did this staff let Insurance Commissioners know that flood insurance rates could dramatically rise? Did members of the NAIC take defensive action? Apparently not. The same goes for staffs of the National Governors Association. Why didn’t coastal governors speak out in opposition to the drastic rate increases that are in the process of taking place?
With all these eyes watching out and reviewing this federal legislation, it would seem impossible for a proposed law to “slip through the cracks.” We would assume that one congressman, one senator, one staff member, one committee member, one lobbyist, one member of one association representing all these coastal states, would say: “Hey, this is really important. This could have huge ramifications on property owners. We’re talking about massive rate increases. Maybe we should look this over much more closely.”
Congressional members from coastal states are hollering for delays in rate increase implementation, something they should have been doing before the legislation was passed into law to begin with. The only proactive state so far is Mississippi, where state insurance commissioner Mike Chaney is suing the federal government, demanding a delay based on “new flood elevation maps that are riddled with errors,” requiring that consumers, “pay for new elevation certificates to prove they are not in a flood zone." He may have a decent case here.
Louisiana State Treasurer John Kennedy, who for years has been critical of the poor property insurance regulatory climate, is proposing the creation of a state run flood insurance company to help stabilize escalating property insurance rates. It’s a good idea, but Louisiana has for years been less than creative in trying to solve its massive insurance problems, which has led to Louisiana having the highest property and auto insurance rates in the nation.
The short-term answer is for congress to delay the implementation of flood insurance increases for the coming year. This gives coastal congressmen and senators, particularly those who dropped the ball along the Gulf Coast, to heavily lobby their cohorts for a workable solution. But the first step in the process for those who represent us in Washington is simply this: start paying attention.
Football season gives pause in Louisiana for the rough and tumble politics ahead. 2014 brings another totally unpredictable Louisiana legislative session, and congressional elections highlighted by a strongly contested U.S. Senatorial race. Then the state jumps into what most political prognosticators predict will be a barnburner of a gubernatorial election in 2015.
We all yearn for the coverage of meaningful issues that touch the quality of life in the Bayou State when the legislature convenes next spring. No, not solving the crises of healthcare, education and affordable insurance. I mean the really important issues that warrant debate that goes on for days. A few examples from past legislative action:
Did you know that in some parts of Louisiana it’s the law that garbage has to be cooked before feeding it to hogs? And throughout the state, biting someone with your natural teeth is “simple assault,” while biting someone with false teeth is “aggravated assault.” It’s illegal for palm readers, fortunetellers, mystics, and the like to officiate at a wedding. And one of my favorites -- you aren’t allowed to tie an alligator to a fire hydrant. We can only imagine what the legislature is gearing up to consider in the next legislative session.
But wait! If you think Louisiana has an oddball legislature that leans toward quirky solutions to nonexistent problems, check out California. There’s great news to report. Moving a notch ahead of us here in the Deep South, California has decriminalized the sale of Caesar salad. That’s right! It’s no longer a crime to put together a Caesar salad in California. What an important gastronomic epitome of a truly civilized state.
A few years back, to shore up California’s “war on crime,” the California State Legislature created a new law that banned the sale of any food product using raw eggs as an ingredient. And what do you find in the smooth, creamy taste with a bit of a bite in the dressing that goes on a Caesar salad? Well, of course, uncooked eggs. So using uncooked eggs for a Caesar became a crime in California. That’s right! Criminal penalties were attached to this new important protection of the public health. You can well imagine the public response. The rallying cry became, “When you outlaw Caesar salad, only outlaws will eat Caesar salad.” Dire predictions were rampant. Would a flourishing black market in contraband romaine lettuce, raw eggs, and Parmesan cheese arise, run by a gourmet criminal element?
But California is similar to Louisiana in one respect. Things don’t change very quickly, and naysayers think it may take some time to bring legislators back to reality. We’ve had plenty of firsthand experience with the same foot dragging here in the Bayou State. So ignoring the roadblocks, a cadre of Caesar supporters, lead by an old friend, Bill Miller with the Libertarian Party, took a more gradual approach, and offered several possible solutions:
Begin a slow return by implementing a five-day waiting period for a Caesar salad, so the government could do a medical background check for raw-egg allergies.
Legalize only “medical Caesar salad” whereby people with a vitamin deficiency could get a doctor’s permission to buy a small amount of Caesar salad strictly for their own personal use.
Launch an anti-Caesar salad TV advertising blitz, perhaps with a commercial showing a frying pan, and then showing the pan with a raw egg in it. The voice-over could be: “This is your brain. This is your brain on Caesar salad.”
Allowing only adults, 21 and over the right to buy Caesar salad, on the grounds that it may be an adolescent’s gateway to stronger stuff, like macaroni salad or three-bean salad.
Libertarian candidates for next year’s congressional elections are springing up all over Louisiana. I can just hear the platform of those running. They could adopt a plank, effectively used in the California fight, that says, “I support the Constitutional right of every Louisianan to keep and bear Caesar salad … or rather to eat and buy a Caesar salad. I’m not going to stand by in my race for U.S. Senator and allow these political eggheads to flourish, and let them think they have the right to micromanage every aspect of our lives.” Right on!
Hey, this may be a pretty good approach. It certainly isn’t any worse than some of the platforms we’ve seen candidates for political office use down here in the Bayou State in recent years. The California Legislature did come to its senses, and Caesar salad is now legal in California. Let’s hope the previous trend doesn’t find its way to Louisiana when the legislature meets next spring.
If it does, you will find me in the forefront of leading the fight against the injustices of banning the salad that I eat five or six times a week. And what will my slogan be? I’ll adopt the libertarian mantra. It’s simple. “Back off Legislature. Just lettuce alone.”