Former U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill used to says that all politics are local politics. Last week's close House vote on the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, offered excellent proof of O'Neill's wisdom.
CAFTA is one of the centerpieces of President George W. Bush's current legislative agenda, along with an energy bill, a transportation bill and approval of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. The House last week narrowly approved CAFTA by a vote of 217 to 215.
The Louisiana delegation split on CAFTA, but in contrast to most recent legislative battles of national or international significance, the division did not fall along party lines. New Orleans Democrat Bill Jefferson, long a staunch supporter of local ports and shipping interests, supported the treaty. Meanwhile, fellow Democrat Charlie Melancon of Napoleonville voted against it. Melancon's district cuts through the heart of Louisiana's sugar-cane belt, and before winning his tough election last year he was the executive director of a sugar-industry trade association.
CAFTA is expected to be a boon to shippers, but sugar growers say it will severely hurt them. Jefferson and Melancon thus voted their local economic and political interests, which put them opposite one another. In contrast to the pitched debates elsewhere about the relative economic merits (or lack thereof) of CAFTA, the global implications of the treaty probably figured little into the deliberations and decision-making of those two congressmen.
That led to the ironic result of Jefferson, a liberal African-American Democrat whose district voted heavily against President Bush both times, voting with the White House on this one. Melancon's district, by contrast, is one of the most conservative anywhere and staunchly supported Bush in both elections -- but Melancon knew he was on solid political ground in his district by opposing CAFTA.
One way to explain that irony is to note that Bush effectively turned his back on his Cajun, sugar-growing supporters.
On the Republican side, things were no more uniform. GOP leaders needed every Republican vote they could muster to spare the President an embarrassing defeat. Yet, on the afternoon of the vote, they could count on only one Louisiana Republican's support -- that of Jim McCrery of Shreveport. That's because the local sugar industry had lobbied hard and long (and effectively) to get the state's other three Republicans on its side.
In the end, the result was split. Congressmen Rodney Alexander of Quitman and Richard Baker of Baton Rouge voted with the White House, while Bobby Jindal of Kenner and Dr. Charles Boustany of Lafayette voted with sugar. Boustany's district includes a number of sugar-growing parishes, and his Cajun roots tie him even more so to that industry. Jindal's suburban New Orleans district probably leaned more toward shipping interests, but he has run statewide before (for governor in 2003) and probably wants to do so again. That being the case, he was wise to give the sugar interests in Acadiana a key vote.
That, after being President Bush's top health-care policy adviser before moving back home to run for governor in 2003.
The White House turned up the pressure in the final days, so much so that Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter of Metairie blasted the heavy-handed tactics of the administration. In one sense, that was classic Vitter: biting the hand that has helped him. On the other hand, while as a senator he could not vote on the House measure, his statement sent a strong signal to his friends in sugar country that he was with them in spirit.
All in all, the debate and vote underscored the intensely local nature of politics, regardless of the issue.
- New Orleans Democrat Bill Jefferson supported CAFTA one of the centerpieces of President Bush's current legislative agenda while Republican Bobby Jindal voted against it.