Cassidy, new Senate wonk, looks to elevate tone of debate

By Geof Koss | 04/07/2016 07:30 AM EDT

While former Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu was known for her fiery rhetoric and battles against Republicans and Democrats alike, the senator who replaced her, Bill Cassidy, is decidedly more low-key and businesslike than his predecessor. Like many Senate freshmen, the 59-year-old Republican physician has followed the more traditional formula of keeping his head down, building relationships with colleagues and doing his homework — a lot of homework — rather than courting controversy like some new senators in recent years.

In the weeks after the December 2014 runoff election that ended Mary Landrieu’s Senate career, Bayou State political commentator Robert Mann received a phone call from the victor, Bill Cassidy.

Cassidy, in preparation for his new job, told him he had asked the Senate historian to recommend some books about the upper chamber. The reading list included "The Walls of Jericho," Mann’s 1997 behind-the-scenes account of passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Mann has deep ties to the Louisiana Democratic power structure as a former top aide to ex-Sens. John Breaux and Russell Long and former Gov. Kathleen Blanco.


But Mann also likes and respects the 59-year-old Republican physician. Mann has known Cassidy in social circles since before the senator entered politics a decade ago.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.)
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.). | Photo by Congress, courtesy of Wikipedia.

"He called me, and I took a book by his house," Mann said in an interview last month. "We talked for a long time in his driveway that day. We’ve always gotten along really well. And he’s a really good guy, friendly fellow."

While Mann was quick to add that he did not vote for Cassidy, the earnestness with which the senator approached his new job struck Mann.

"I was just impressed by the fact that one of the first things he did when he got to the Senate was go to the historian’s office and say, ‘Give me the five books I ought to read to learn the history of the U.S. Senate,’" said Mann, who now teaches journalism at Louisiana State University and writes a political column for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "I mean, who does that?"

The anecdote is illustrative of Cassidy and his philosophy of governance. Reserved but friendly, he appears far more focused on the substance of his work as a senator than on the political currents swirling around him.

He’s interested in ideas and knowledge and debating policy on the merits, colleagues say. The influence of his medical training and academic experiences is evident in Cassidy, who is prone to recalling statistics and obscure facts from books he’s read decades earlier.

Cassidy has also displayed a knack for returning to past conversations with reporters hours or even days later as if there had just been a momentary interruption.

Unlike Landrieu — a career politician who was first elected to the state Legislature at age 23 — Cassidy spent more than two decades working as a physician in Louisiana before turning to politics. He specialized in liver disease.

During that time, he helped found a clinic that provides free health and dental care for uninsured workers, while also teaching medical students at his alma mater, LSU.

Cassidy’s official bio says he helped lead volunteers in converting an abandoned department store building into an emergency facility following Hurricane Katrina.

And while Landrieu was known for her fiery rhetoric and battles against Republicans and Democrats alike, Cassidy is decidedly more low-key and businesslike than his predecessor. He’s often seen carrying a dark briefcase to the Senate chamber during his frequent stints presiding.

Likes to ‘drill down’

Like many Senate freshmen, Cassidy has followed the more traditional formula of keeping his head down, building relationships with colleagues and doing his homework — a lot of homework — rather than courting controversy like some new senators in recent years.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) says that Cassidy likes to "drill down" into the minutiae of policy on the committee.

"He likes to get into the details of an issue," Murkowski said this week. "And he does it with enthusiasm, and it’s a real passion. I’ve never really seen him come to the committee and you kind of feel like he’s reading some notes that staff have prepared for him or that somebody wants him to say. He’s saying these things because, by gosh, he’s got a question and he wants to know the answer to it."

Cassidy has also earned the respect of Democratic colleagues, including Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who occupies the exact opposite side of the political spectrum but has bonded with the conservative physician while collaborating on a broad mental health reform bill, which is set to reach the Senate floor in the coming weeks.

"There’s no doubt that he’s a conservative Republican, but we’ve been able to find common ground on this mental health bill," said Murphy this week.

Before Cassidy would sign off on any bill provisions, Murphy said, he would consult with medical providers back home to ensure that the proposal would have the real-world impact the pair sought.

That means, Murphy said, that "he’s been pretty non-ideological about constructing this bill because he’s not making decisions based on politics; he’s making decisions based on what his state’s telling him."

Murphy noted that their partnership came at the recommendation of a leading mental health advocate who was impressed by Cassidy’s acumen on the subject during a series of hearings in the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2014.

Cassidy was once a member of the panel. He served in the House between 2009 and 2015. Before that, Cassidy served in the Louisiana Senate between 2006 and 2009.

What sparked the advocate’s interest was Cassidy’s bringing a well-worn copy of a 2007 book called "Crazy," written by a former Washington Post reporter about his experiences with his mentally ill son.

"So when I mentioned that I wanted to work on mental health, someone said, ‘Oh, Bill Cassidy was excellent on this issue,’" Murphy recalled. "So this guy says, ‘Bill Cassidy walks into these hearings with this dog-eared copy of this book we’ve all read.’ It was sort of a sign of how serious he was. He’s very intellectually engaged in his issues, which makes it fairly easy to work with."

‘An intellectual case’

In the energy arena — an issue of paramount importance to his oil-and-gas-producing state, which also boasts a heavy manufacturing presence — Cassidy has pressed his agenda from spots on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Appropriations subcommittee that funds U.S. EPA and the Interior Department.

Reflective and curious, Cassidy says he is singularly focused on building the strongest fact-based argument possible in shaping policy.

"You know, I’m very much interested in making an intellectual case that will begin to change people’s minds," he said earlier this year about an amendment to repeal the renewable fuel standard (RFS).

A vote on the politically charged proposal doesn’t appear in the cards, nor would it likely muster the 60 votes necessary for adoption. But taking the long view, Cassidy was nonetheless anxious for debate, seeing an opportunity to sway his colleagues.

In his opinion, the RFS has driven up global food prices, contributing to malnutrition. He says mandating ethanol in fuel blends has also increased carbon emissions and depleted aquifers.

"That has been an environmental disaster, as far as I can tell, as well as a public policy disaster," he said. "The more people understand that, the more you flip votes. We’re in a process here."

In recent months, Cassidy has begun to carve a niche for himself as someone who challenges the conventional wisdom underlying public policy, including, notably, on climate change.

As Congress was moving closer to a spending deal that ended the decades-old crude export embargo, Cassidy was irked by environmentalists’ arguments that doing so would cause greenhouse gas emissions to spike.

Finding little relevant research on the subject, Cassidy conducted his own by comparing the greenhouse gas emissions from crude supplied by Gulf of Mexico offshore rigs to Iran’s oil fields, which emit as much as three times the carbon that U.S. drillers produce.

Cassidy later detailed the findings in an op-ed published by The Hill newspaper in December that accused President Obama of "climate hypocrisy."

The exercise illustrates Cassidy’s penchant for using data to understand the ramifications of policy, a proclivity he says stems from his medical background.

"I think it’s just part of my training," he told E&E Daily in an interview in his office last month. "You’ve got to build up the facts. Opinions don’t matter. I don’t care what you believe; show me the facts, as much as we can know those facts. And then, when we know those facts, what are the alternative explanations?"

In trying to turn the tables on Democrats on climate, Cassidy said he wants to see the debate "grounded" in reality.

"We need to start looking at these policies that are being proposed for what they are — flawed, knee-jerk responses to something which should have a different approach if you really care about the issue," he said.

Turning office into think tank

Books he read long ago are strong influences on Cassidy. When it comes to energy, the senator looks to Yale University historian Paul Kennedy’s 1988 "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers."

The tome, which Cassidy notes he first read while dating his physician wife of 27 years, Laura, explores the connection between resource use and national power over five centuries.

For Cassidy, the book’s salient point is that economic growth is inherently tied to energy use. "If there’s one thing that you get from the book, it’s that statistical relationship," he said.

Inspired by his analysis of crude exports, Cassidy in recent months has turned his office into a mini-think tank of sorts, with staff juggling the day-to-day operations with their boss’s interest in probing the data and assumptions behind U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

For a half-hour last month, Cassidy walked E&E Daily through his team’s research efforts in the Hart Senate Office Building office that Landrieu used to occupy.

With Excel spreadsheets beaming from a large flat-screen television, and surrounded by no fewer than five staffers, the scene resembled a graduate school seminar more than a congressional office, with Cassidy leading the discussion in a professorial tone.

"In this office we take as our prism, through which we work and look at everything, is how is that working family doing?" he said.

"Because you can come up with a lot of policies that punish working families but somehow makes somebody in Washington feel really good about what they’re doing. Because really, if we come up with policies that sacrifice the American family, shame on us," he said. "Shame on us."

Of particular interest to Cassidy is the connection between energy use, manufacturing and income inequality, and a great deal of last month’s meeting focused on examining current and future economic projections of states with the least and most stringent emission goals under the CPP.

Both Cassidy and his staff are well-versed in the complicated subject. Cassidy himself can easily discuss the relative merits of rate-based or mass-based compliance with the CPP, while his staff can rattle off such facts as the percentage of Canadian hydropower and nuclear power imported into New England and its impact on manufacturing.

Alternative climate solutions

One early conclusion is that states with the lowest per-capita emissions have far more to lose in terms of manufacturing jobs than those with the highest, and therefore have higher rates of income inequality. While Cassidy concedes some inconsistencies, "That is a strong trend," he said.

The implications are clear for a state with a large industrial and manufacturing base such as Louisiana. Cassidy expects U.S. jobs to leave for nations with far less stringent environmental regulations.

"We’re going to cap our economic growth, and those folks who make a living working on a rig — two weeks on, two weeks off, make $100,000 a year with overtime — are going to lose their job because of the less downstream use of the product that they’re producing," Cassidy said.

For Cassidy, the ongoing research project is an exercise in highlighting what he sees as a flawed and unworkable solution to climate change.

"Sometimes, up here, you have a sense that people believe what they want to believe, whether or not it’s true," he said. "And the idea that we’re going to decarbonize our society is absurd. It’s just patently absurd, and we can show you statistic after statistic [of] how absurd that is, unless we want to go back to Stone Age living."

Environmentalists and Obama administration leaders also boast research about the need to reduce carbon emissions and the benefits of a clean energy economy.

Cassidy has a lifetime score of 7 percent from the League of Conservation Voters. Like Landrieu in the past, he counts fossil fuel companies among his top donors.

Pressed on the subject of climate, Cassidy offers his own solutions, including increased use of cleaner-burning natural gas, especially in the transportation sector; the development and export of technologies to burn coal cleaner; and policies that encourage major oil and gas producers to apply their domestic techniques abroad.

"If we know that our majors are developing oil and gas with a lower carbon footprint than the countries abroad, then we should be encouraging them to bring that technology abroad," he said.

Additionally, Cassidy is determined to lead by example by pressing efficiency and recycling at every opportunity.

"I always tell my staff, when I go around picking plastic and aluminum out of the trash can and put it in the recycle bin, that we’re conservatives and we conserve," he said.

Cassidy said he admonishes his staff members to turn their computers off before leaving the office. "My family calls me cheap, but why am I burning taxpayer dollars on something that we’re not using?" he said.