Corrected 10:30 a.m. | When the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee marked up its budget reconciliation measure earlier this month, the longest-serving member of the panel wasn’t there.
Alaska Republican Don Young also wasn’t there during the June 9 and 10 committee markup of a $767 billion bill paying for surface transportation programs.
And he didn’t vote on the surface transportation bill that the committee voted on in 2020, even though the markups were hybrid, meaning he had the option of voting in person or remotely.
In all three cases, he was the lone committee member not to vote on a single amendment on any of those bills, which were considered some of the more momentous pieces of legislation tackled by the committee this Congress.
These days, it’s more typical for the 88-year-old lawmaker to be absent at markups than not. While Young has been physically present for floor votes, weighing in on most of the bills to reach the floor in July during the busy run-up to recess, he’s skipped markups for bills in Transportation and Infrastructure throughout 2020 and 2021, according to CQ committee vote data.
Young, in fact, hasn’t voted in a Transportation and Infrastructure markup in more than two years, well before the coronavirus pandemic made Zoom calls and proxy voting the new norm. His last roll call vote in that committee on March 27, 2019, was in support of an amendment that would bar the commandant of the Coast Guard from considering any data or information produced by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in a report on how the Coast Guard will be affected by climate change. The committee rejected the amendment.
The last time he voted in a roll call vote on the Natural Resources Committee, on Feb. 12, 2020, was over a series of amendments and a bill related to the committee’s authority to issue subpoenas for certain records and testimony. Before that, his last roll call votes on that committee were on Sept. 18, 2019.
“I am working,” Young said during a floor vote last week when asked about his absences. “I’m working. I don’t believe in Zoom, I don’t like that communication-type thing. I just do my job.”
Congressional watchdogs disagree.
“In what private business is it OK if an employee doesn’t show up to their work but only for certain events?” asks Tim Stretton, director of the Congressional Oversight Initiative at the Project on Government Oversight. “He works for the people of Alaska. He has a duty to them to have their interests and vote for or against bills. Even if you vote against something, you try to improve it. And it would appear he’s not doing that.”
“The expectation from constituents is that their elected officials show up to work,” Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of government watchdog group Public Citizen, said in an email. “While COVID has complicated that topic, taxpayers still have a right to representation in committees, on the floor, and in the Halls of Congress from those they send to DC to do the job.”
Watchdog groups rarely monitor member attendance at markups, instead opting to monitor whether lawmakers vote on the House or Senate floor. But committees, watchdogs say, are where the real work gets done — where members have an opportunity to weigh in on bills, leave their imprint via amendments and do the proverbial “sausage-making” that goes into legislating.
Still, Jerry McBeath, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, doubts Young’s absence will matter among Alaska voters, who reelected him with more than 50 percent of the vote in the past three elections. In 2020, he received 54.4 percent of the vote.
McBeath said Young’s last real challenge was during his 2008 primary, when he beat his challenger, Sean Parnell, by 304 votes.
Young, he said, is savvy and well known to Alaskans, and “knows real well where the money is and where to make sure he has things for Alaska.” He makes gaffes, he said, but “Alaskans just eat it up.”
“He’s the signatory Alaska brand,” McBeath said.
“His idea of working is different than yours,” he said. “Don Young’s idea of working is being one of the guys, talking, trying to figure out what people need and want. … He has no problem just missing stuff, so long as he can point to his record. And his record on infrastructure issues is pretty good.”
There is a history of lawmakers with attendance problems, typically because of debilitating illnesses. In those cases, however, lawmakers miss everything, including markups and full floor votes. In some cases, it’s because they’re running for other offices — many of the 2020 Democratic primary candidates, for example, were senators who missed votes in their quest for the White House.
The Bipartisan Policy Center, in a blog post last year, laid out examples: Sen. Karl Mundt of South Dakota suffered a stroke in 1969 and was absent for the final three years of his Senate term, while the state of Virginia petitioned courts to remove Sen. Carter Glass of Virginia in the early 1940s after illness forced him to be absent from the Senate for nearly two years. In that case, the court did not take action. No sitting member of Congress has ever been replaced for incapacitation, the blog found.
But Young is not incapacitated. Although he dealt with a bout of COVID-19 in November 2020 that sent him to the hospital, he has recovered.
He has, however, used the proxy voting process at times, even after he told House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in June that he would join the House Republican lawsuit challenging the Democratic rule allowing such voting.
In a press release posted on his congressional website, Young committed to refraining from voting via proxy for another member or designating a proxy for his own votes, calling the proxy voting rule “flagrantly unconstitutional.”
But a review of his floor votes in the CQ database revealed that he has voted by proxy 67 times in 2021 as of Sept. 23, most recently on Aug. 24.
He voted in person throughout the busy legislative month of July, with the exception of one vote on July 23 and all votes on July 1, which happened to be the day the full House voted on the $767 billion transportation bill.
“He’s going to the floor in person to vote,” said Stretton. “Why can’t he show up to committee markups, even virtually, and vote?”
Young hasn’t completely abrogated his committee duties. He inserted an amendment to a bill marked up by the House Natural Resources Committee on Sept. 30, 2020, to revise the definition of the term “buffalo.” On July 29, 2020, he amended a bill being marked up by Natural Resources to direct the Department of Health and Human Services to convey land to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.
And during a Feb. 12, 2020, committee hearing, he was present and vocal, pounding on the dais to express his irritation about the increasing partisanship of the Natural Resources Committee.
That hearing was the last time he recorded a vote in the full committee, though he did make a statement via Zoom during a July 29 Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife hearing on pending legislation and has appeared at hearings for both committees throughout 2021 to make opening comments and question witnesses.
Such a move is unusual, Stretton said, noting that members typically are more likely to be absent from hearings than markups.
“Committees usually work pretty hard to ensure the attendance of members at markups, more than just regular oversight hearings,” he said. “There’s not a huge gap in the majority and minority, even on the House side, so a few missing members can really make a difference.”
Young skipped Natural Resources’ markup of its portion of the budget reconciliation package bill earlier this month despite the fact that the Democratic proposal includes sweeping changes to the federal oil and gas leasing program, as well as provisions aimed directly at Alaska.
Those include changes Republicans say would gut the Naval Petroleum Reserve in Alaska and the repeal of provisions from the 2017 Republican tax bill that opened a large swath of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
Young authored an amendment striking those provisions from the reconciliation package but left it to his colleagues on the committee to make his case during the markup.
The committee’s top Republican, Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, spoke in favor of the amendment and criticized the reconciliation package’s repeal of drilling in the refuge.
“These provisions that are in the underlying bill send a message to the people of Alaska and the Alaska delegation that they are not allowed to have their say in how they manage their natural resources and create jobs in their home state,” Westerman said.
The amendment was defeated on a party-line vote.
Young’s spokesman said the lawmaker, who was first elected in 1973 and is the longest-serving Republican in congressional history, has been hard at work.
Young served as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee from 1995 to 2001. He chaired the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 2001 to 2007.
“He had a very busy state work period, which included constituent meetings, site visits and the recent release of a transportation-related op-ed in the Vancouver Sun,” the spokesman said.
Stretton was unmoved, saying Young has missed markups on some “monumental stuff.”
“It’s his job to show up,” he said.
This report was corrected to accurately reflect the home state of Sen. Karl Mundt.
Joseph Morton contributed to this report.