The pseudo-effectiveness of Alaska’s Congressman at large

In a press release on Tuesday U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, bragged that he had been named the “Most Effective Lawmaker in U.S. House of Representatives.” He was also proud to be ranked among the top 10 percent for bipartisanship. If he really earned those tittles, why was he hiding in the background until just before the House voted to pass the totally partisan American Health Care Act?

 

Young’s recognitions need to be taken with a grain of salt. The 114th Congress accomplished little more than the two prior sessions, both of which were among the least productive in U.S. history. It was the most polarized in more than a century. And during the entire session their public approval rating was dismally stuck below 20 percent.

What I’m trying to say is being declared a congressional star should be viewed no differently than the most valuable player on the 2016 Cleveland Browns. There’s no glamour being part of a team that lost 15 of its 16 games. Embarrassment over such a performance should dictate humility when accepting a personal award.

Additionally, FiscalNote, the organization which awarded Young his most effective title, rated members of Congress using a proprietary algorithm that claims “getting reelected by one’s constituents can be an important measure of effectiveness in and of itself.” As the longest serving Republican in Congress, Young couldn’t help but vault higher than everyone except Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, who ranked a few notches lower. And that criteria ignores the substantial fundraising advantage enjoyed by incumbents.

Another factor in FiscalNote’s formula is “bills sponsored, bills out of committee, bills to the floor and bills enacted.” The first three are about effort, not accomplishment. Indeed, one could argue that sponsoring so much legislation that went nowhere is a measure of ineffectiveness.

In Young’s case, he sponsored 64 separate bills during the 114th Congress. Only four were passed by the House. Just two of the four became law, both as part of other legislation. And despite being a member of the House majority, the other 60 died in committees.

So how could FiscalNote be so wrong? Maybe because they haven’t the experience to accurately measure our government’s accomplishments. The group was founded by a 21-year-old political novice in 2013. Plus their objective is to provide organizations with a tool for influencing government, which is very different than determining the positive impact any legislator has on our society.

Young has had played no serious role during the decades long healthcare debate. In these two AHCA rounds, he influenced no one by keeping his position secret until the clock was about to expire. It seems the appearance of winning — leaning no when it failed and voting yes when it passed — was his primary goal.

In March, when the bill didn’t even reach the House floor for a vote, I thought Young deserved credit, not for his voting intention, but because he criticized the GOP for crafting the AHCA in total partisan isolation, just as the Democrats had done with Obamacare. And I agreed with his proposal to involve doctors, nurses, hospitals and patients in writing new legislation.

Six weeks later, without the support of a single Democrat, Young did an about face. He voted in favor of a minimally revised AHCA even though it was debated for just three hours and no amendments were allowed. What’s worse, he turned his back on dozens of groups opposed to it after arguing their participation was essential. And he ignored warnings from the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that it will hurt Alaskans more than the residents of every other state.

What’s really sad is Young’s claim that his support gained “the assurance and the backing of the leadership” for his other bills. “I think we’re in a better position to get legislation done for Alaska after the vote today” he said, “than I was before.”

If Young was truly effective, he wouldn’t have had to abandon the principled stand he’d taken less than two months ago in order to get serious consideration for the rest of his legislative agenda. Selling out so easily isn’t how a lawmaker earns respect.

And that may explain why, after serving for 44 years, Young doesn’t chair a single committee, or even a subcommittee, in the U.S. House of Representatives. It leaves me to believe he’s been most effective at minimizing his influence on most national and many Alaskan issues. If we want real representation from our Congressman-at-large, then Republicans and Democrats had better start looking for quality candidates to prevent Young’s reelection in 2018.

 


 

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.

 


 

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