Taylor was born in New Orleans and is a graduate of Tulane University. He completed additional post-graduate work at University of Southern Mississippi, Gulf Park Campus. From 1971 through 1984, he was a member of the United States Coast Guard Reserve, commanding a search and rescue boat and earning several commendations. Taylor is a practicing Roman Catholic and holds a black belt in Taekwondo. He belongs to the Blue Dog Democrats.
After one term, he ran as the Democratic candidate to succeed Republican incumbent Trent Lott in Mississippi's 5th District when Lott made a successful run for the Senate. He lost to Harrison County sheriff Larkin I. Smith by almost 10 points. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee offered very little help to Taylor, believing the district to be too heavily Republican. Vice President George H. W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis by approximately a 70 to 30 margin in the district, and Lott beat Wayne Dowdy by a similar margin in the Senate race. Although about 30,000 Bush and Lott voters split their tickets to vote for Taylor, he could not overcome the Republican tide in the district.
Smith died in a plane crash eight months later. In the special election to fill Smith's seat, Taylor picked up 42 percent of the vote to lead Republican Tom Anderson and Democrat Mike Moore in the first round. Some leading Democrats had tried to convince Taylor to stand aside and not seek the position in deference to Moore, who was the state's Attorney General and who was also a Gulf Coast resident, but Taylor doubled Moore's vote total on the first ballot. Two weeks later, Taylor beat Anderson, Lott's Chief of Staff, with 65 percent of the vote. Taylor took office on October 24, 1989. He won a full term in 1990 with 81 percent of the vote. He beat well-funded Republican challengers in 1992 and 1996, and has had little trouble in subsequent elections despite representing a district that has not supported the official Democratic presidential candidate since 1956. His district was renumbered the 4th after the 2000 redistricting cost Mississippi a congressional seat.
Taylor has been a staunch advocate of maintaining the "Buy American" requirements in Defense contracting, and of maintaining the Jones Act requirements that vessels operating between U.S. ports must be American-flagged, American-made, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens. In February 2007, he was one of two Democrats to oppose H CON RES 63, which expressed opposition to a troop surge in the Iraq War.
Taylor is one of the most conservative Democrats in the House; In 2004 he voted with the Republican leadership 54.2 percent of the time. He voted for all four articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton — the only Democrat to do so — and has frequently skipped Democratic conventions. In 1998 he was one of only 18 Democrats in the House to vote to rename the Washington National Airport the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. He is pro-life, a supporter of the Federal Marriage Amendment and a firm supporter of gun rights. He had refused to vote for Nancy Pelosi as the Democrats' candidate for Speaker of the House until the party regained power in 2006, instead casting a protest vote for Jack Murtha. He did, however, join the other Democrats in voting for Pelosi in 2006.
In 2006, Taylor was the only Democrat in the House to vote in favor of all amendments to the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act. However, he voted with every Democrat in favor of the final bill. He strongly supports the death penalty and is more conservative on issues of crime, immigration, and drugs than many Republicans. He is among the House's strongest supporters of drug testing for all federal employees and has submitted amendments to that effect.
Taylor is one of the few Democrats to vote repeatedly in favor of medical malpractice reform and has a mixed record on tort reform issues. He has also voted consistently to tighten rules on personal bankruptcy. Throughout most of his career, Taylor has voted against many bills and amendments supported by labor unions. In 2002, he was one of only five Democrats to vote against an amendment submitted by Connie Morella (R-MD) to secure workplace rights for employees in the Department of Homeland Security and in the 1990s he voted against the Family and Medical Leave Act. In 2007 he was one of only two Democrats in the House to vote against the Employee Free Choice Act. He has sided with labor, however, in opposition to trade agreements that he has called responsible for a decline in U.S. manufacturing, and in support of increasing the minimum wage. Taylor also supported amending the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced budget and another amendment requiring a two-thirds majority to raise taxes. In 1993 he was among the minority of Democrats to oppose the budget package favored by President Bill Clinton which included an increase in taxes, and three years before that he had voted against the budget bill that was generally supported by the Democratic Party.
Taylor has been a strong critic of the Bush Administration's fiscal policy. He voted against the tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003, claiming that the cuts contained in those bills would only increase the national debt. He derided the prescription drug plan passed in 2003 as a giveaway to companies that donate to the Republican Party. He is one of the House's most vehement opponents of free trade agreements and was strongly opposed to the Bush administration's proposals for reforming Social Security. He has also voted at times with more liberal members of the House with regards to Cuba. Since coming to the House, he has voted in favor of most campaign finance laws and other laws favored by more progressive elements of the Democratic Party to reform politics.
He once sponsored a bill that would repeal the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and has voted numerous times to leave the World Trade Organization (WTO). Taylor has a mixed voting record on environmental issues; He has voted repeatedly against the ban on drilling in Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), while voting at other times with the mainstream of his party. He has also denounced Vice President Dick Cheney's ties to Halliburton.
In House Armed Services Committee hearings, Taylor was sharply critical of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other administration witnesses, particularly regarding shortages of armor for troops and vehicles in Iraq. He decried the lack of urgency to speed up production and procurement of armored vehicles and of jammers to block the signals of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
When Republican leaders appointed a select committee to investigate the federal, state and local response to Katrina, most Democrats boycotted it. However, Taylor was one of three Democrats (the others were Bill Jefferson and Charlie Melancon, both of Louisiana) invited to attend the hearings because their districts were particularly hard-hit by the storm.
When former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael D. Brown appeared before the committee, Taylor reacted angrily to Brown's attempts to put primary responsibility for the failed response at the state and local level. Taylor seemed particularly upset that several first responders in Hancock County, his home county, were forced to loot a Wal-Mart to get food and supplies. They also had to wait several days after the storm before they got any help from FEMA workers. He told Brown that FEMA "fell on (its) face" in its response to Katrina, which he said rated "an F-minus in my book."
Taylor has become a harsh critic of the insurance industry's actions after Katrina. In coastal areas that suffered hours of hurricane force winds followed by Katrina's unprecedented storm surge, several insurers assigned all the damages to the water rather than the wind. Taylor sponsored a successful amendment to the House version of the Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act that instructed the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security to investigate whether insurance companies defrauded the government by assigning some hurricane damages to flooding, covered by the National Flood Insurance Program, that should have been covered by the insurers' own windstorm policies. The Senate did not act on the flood insurance bill, but Sen. Trent Lott added a similar provision to the Homeland Security Appropriations Act. Taylor supports repeal of the insurance industry's exemption from federal antitrust laws that was granted by the McCarran-Ferguson Act. He also advocates Congressional action to create a program to provide for all-perils disaster insurance.
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and House Democratic Caucus Chairman James Clyburn appointed Taylor to chair the Katrina Task Force to make policy recommendations to the Caucus. The task force has recommended insurance regulation and reforms, construction of Category-5 levees in Louisiana, coastal restoration projects, FEMA contracting reforms, reassigning some responsibilities from FEMA to other federal agencies, and replacing the National Guard equipment and supplies that have been left behind in Iraq.