Some Vacation: Higgins' Madcap District Dash
Election to Congress was a step down from Sheriff's Office captain, U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre, told an Iota crowd last week.
Maybe he was kidding. But Higgins' schedule over Congress' Easter Recess wouldn't convince anyone he's a "fat cat" congressman yet.
You want junkets? Higgins took the opposite of a junket from April 10-21. With the exception of a couple of days to observe Easter, Higgins explored these exotic locales during his "break": Acadia, Calcasieu, Cameron, Iberia, Jefferson Davis, Lafayette, St. Mary, St. Martin and Vermilion parishes. All of them are in his 3rd Congressional District.
The schedule called for nine parishes in nine days: 49 meetings, visits, speeches, tours, meet-and-greets and town halls.
Higgins' spokesman, Andrew David, said Higgins was uncomfortable with the idea of vacation after just three months on the job. Rest assured, he got little rest.
That's why Higgins, sworn in Jan. 3, met with rice millers in Acadia, Fleur de lis Republican Women in Abbeville, town officials in Welsh and shrimp processors in Delcambre. It's why he visited firefighters and cops in Crowley, Republican Women in Lake Charles and port officials in Morgan City.
He caught up with the project managers for the Port Cameron Project. He toured Sasol's $11-billion ethene cracker under construction in Westlake. In Iberia Parish, he talked with officials about the Acadiana Gulf of Mexico Access Channel. In St. Martinville, he talked with ministers about reentry into the workplace for prisoners leaving the penitentiary system.
"I intended this to be a learning experience," Higgins said. "My job is to listen carefully to their counsel and understand their needs."
That's why he met with experts in agriculture and fishing, ports and shipping channels, levee boards and public safety. He said he wants to represent the district with not only passion, but also with authority.
It wasn't his first time around the district, which stretches from St. Mary Parish to the Texas line. He said he put 25,000 miles on his 2015 Dodge Challenger during the 2016 congressional campaign.
But his Easter recess travels took him places he hadn't seen before, and exposed him to a host of problems and issues facing the district.
Here's some of what he learned:
- Shrimp processors told him about continuing troubles with the H2B Visa cap, which limits the part-time workforce, mostly from Mexico, that keeps their operations afloat during shrimp and crawfish season. One plant he visited was shut down for lack of workers. Another operated at 20 percent capacity.
- He got a close look at Sasol's project, which employs some 6,000 construction workers and which will employ 500-600 workers at an average of $80,000 to $90,000 a year.
- Rice millers told him how important it is to enforce trade agreements. They don't always get to compete on a level playing field, he was told.
He saw the old Interstate bridge that soars into the Calcasieu skyline. He learned about the long delays in replacing that span. (Incidentally, he told constituents at a town hall meeting in Iota, the bridge is stable.)
In New Iberia, he exchanged views with protesters who oppose President Donald Trump and the Republican majority. The exchange, though spirited, was cordial. In Iota, where no protesters gathered, he told the crowd that political dissent is an American right.
There was more, of course, but you get the idea.
In pressing for a crash course in his own district, Higgins seemed to follow in the sure footsteps of former congressman Charles Boustany. A physician, Boustany over 12 years forged himself into an expert in low-visibility, high-yield subjects for his district like agriculture, trade, ports and dredging.
Boustany, who was not a veteran, made himself an expert in veteran's health issues, too, a cause Higgins has taken up with his introduction of House Resolution 1942, which demands occasional audits of the Veterans Health Administration. Higgins, one of just four freshmen lawmakers to pass a bill this session, introduced HR 1942 on April 5.
Higgins is no heart surgeon — Boustany was — and never graduated LSU. But he served five years in the Army — many soldiers become cops, he said — and professes to have a heart for those veterans who have been shortchanged in their health benefits. Some 133,000 men and women in the 3rd Congressional District served in the military; only 32,000 access their health benefits, Higgins said. That suggests to him that they've become frustrated with the system.
The bill, he said, should help matters. Audits, he said, help save money. He'll push for the bill's progress in committee, he said, but he was unsure of a timetable last week. There's only so much time in a day, he said.
And there's only so many days in a vacation.