When committee devolves to ‘bickering,’ Alaska congresswoman takes her exit

woman in brown sitting on a chair
Rep. Mary Peltola in the House Natural Resources Committee Wednesday. (Screen grab from committee video)

Alaska’s lone member of the U.S. House says that so far, she’s seen too much inflammatory rhetoric and too little action.

Rep. Mary Peltola has pledged to carry on the legacy of her predecessor, Don Young, and in many ways, she is following in his footsteps. But their approach to quarrels in committee rooms could not be more different.

“As a mother of seven kids, I know what bickering sounds like. And it was worse bickering than even my children are involved in,” Peltola said after Wednesday’s meeting of the House Natural Resources Committee.

It was supposed to be a routine meeting to adopt the committee ground rules, but things became heated, especially when the topic turned to guns.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., proposed reinstating a rule barring members from bringing firearms to the committee room.

“How many members feel like they would need to carry a weapon into our committee hearings?” he asked, amid a cacophony of Republican objections.

Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., raised her hand. She’s made gun-toting a big part of her identity.

“I feel like I need one everywhere here,” she said. “Oftentimes we’re harassed in the hallways when we walk alone.”

Loaded? Huffman asked.

“Not an unloaded weapon,” she responded. 

Democrats badgered the chairman to say that House Rules prohibit carrying firearms to the House chamber. Republicans accused Democrats of pandering to the gun control groups. One challenged Democrats to name the “homicidal maniacs” on the committee that they were so afraid of. Another vowed to use her gun to defend her colleagues, even Democrats, from attack.

Eventually the committee voted 25 to 14 not to impose a weapons ban in the committee room.

So how did Peltola vote? She didn’t.

Peltola said she chose to leave the room when someone – she didn’t name names, but it was Boebert – put up a big poster board of Huffman wearing a tinfoil hat.

“I just thought, ‘OK, this has devolved to a place where I have better uses of my time,’” Peltola said. “And I recognize that those amendments were not going to pass. It turned into a very shrill conversation at a number of times. Very high-pitched emotionalism and not problem-solving.”

Peltola had another committee meeting to attend. She had constituents waiting to talk to her.

Congress members often complain about proceedings that waste their time, particularly if they’re in the minority, as Peltola is. But choosing to withdraw from the field rather than engage in rhetorical  battle? This is a very different Congress member than the one Alaskans had before.

That’s because Don Young was a brawler, and his arena was often the very same House Resources Committee. He would habitually harangue witnesses, particularly if they opposed Alaska developments he supported. He could be counted on to spark quarrels, not to leave when the fires broke out.

Peltola is not saying how she would have voted on a gun ban for the Resources Committee, because she said it was not a legitimate effort.

“It was a lot of grandstanding and posturing and ‘playing to your base,’” she said.

Guns are a tricky area for her. She owns them, grew up with them and says they are a core tool of Alaska subsistence lifestyle. Still, she supports things like secure storage laws and waiting periods and universal background checks for firearm purchases, which doesn’t pass muster with the gun lobby.

Posturing and playing to the base is mostly what Congress has done so far this year, she said.

“We’re spending a lot of time on things like non-binding resolutions, like voting against the horrors of socialism,”  she said.

Thursday’s vote denouncing the horrors of socialism put Democrats like Peltola in a quandary. It was meant to embarrass the left. Some said it was poorly drafted. Was it all forms of Socialism? What about Social Security and Medicare? And what about the center-left parties in ally countries like Canada and Norway?

Then again, no one is pro-murderous dictatorships or pro-horror.

“This is a very big waste of my time, Alaskan constituents’ time, time in the building, staff time,” she said.

But in the eyes of some Republicans, condemning socialism is a message that matters.

Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, passionately defended the resolution on the House floor.

“If, like my colleagues say, this is just theater – that decrying socialism, extolling the freedom and virtue and value of freedom — is just theater,” he said, nearly shouting, “God, give us more Shakespeares. God bless America.”

In the end, Peltola was among 109 Democrats who voted for the resolution. She said it was a no-win situation. But, as she sees it, it wasn’t worth fighting over.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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