Sen. Gary Peters is proud of the bills he passed and the extra seat Democrats won last year, but a conversation doesn’t go far before he also brings up some Michigan history.
“1959,” Peters said in his Hart Building office. “That’s a really long time, and also I was just born in December of ’58, so basically my entire life.”
The Democrat who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and is entering his second stint as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was referring to the last time a Michigan senator held a seat on the Appropriations Committee.
That Wolverine drought broke on Jan. 26, when Peters effectively filled the seat vacated by the retirement of Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. It didn’t take him long to start sounding like an appropriator.
“It’s great to authorize actions, but it’s better to actually authorize them and fund them both to make them a reality,” Peters said.
Peters saw 19 of his bills pass and get signed into law last Congress, the most for an individual senator going back 42 years, according to his office and information from the Congressional Research Service and the Senate Historical Office. And while that statistic could be misleading, only one of those measures was a stand-alone post office naming bill, the epitome of noncontroversial legislation nearly always approved by unanimous consent.
Despite that, Peters says some of his most significant legislative accomplishments didn’t come through stand-alone legislation. Like many lawmakers, Peters sought ways to affix Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs legislation onto other must-pass bills, including the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act.
That proved to be the vehicle for a bipartisan measure with then-HSGAC ranking member Rob Portman of Ohio designed to provide inspectors general with protections from undue interference.
Former President Donald Trump’s handling of the IGs, such as the firing of State Department IG Steve Linick, has long since moved past the headlines, but it made an appearance Tuesday night during President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address.
“Before I came to office, you remember during that campaign the big issue was about inspector generals who would protect taxpayers’ dollars who were sidelined,” Biden said. “They were fired. Many people said we don’t need them, and fraud became rampant. Last year, I told you the watchdogs are back.”
In the interview last week, Peters highlighted the IG office overhaul as one of his key accomplishments in the last Congress.
“It’s clear that IGs need to have independence. They’re the watchdogs for the taxpayers and for Congress, in the executive,” Peters said. “So we wanted to make sure that we strengthen that position and make it more difficult for a president to just willy-nilly fire somebody, and particularly if they were uncovering things that were uncomfortable or embarrassing. … Their job is to do that.”
Also on Peters’ legislative win list? A stand-alone measure seeking to protect against conflicts of interest in government contracting.
“There were cases where one particular consulting company was on both sides of the opioid crisis,” Peters said, referring to McKinsey. “Which is simply unacceptable, particularly if it’s not being disclosed.”
Peters said the bill that Biden signed into law was a case of trying to both make sure the government stays ahead of potential bad news and prevent the kinds of problems that lead to headlines and “60 Minutes” exposés.
“How do we try to ensure that those conflicts of interest don’t exist with federal contractors? So those are not something that usually get much media attention until something really bad happens, and there’s this big conflict, right?” he said. “So we wanted to be in front of that and make sure we don’t have those kinds of conflicts.”
Despite leading the DSCC, which was working to capture GOP-held seats, Peters was able to achieve some bipartisan accomplishments, including on cybersecurity and a long overdue overhaul of the U.S. Postal Service. He was surely helped by the fact that Portman was retiring and had a record of working with Democrats even during campaign years.
Democrats came out of the election with one more seat, giving the party a true 51-seat majority instead of working control in a 50-50 chamber.
“We made history there. What we accomplished was the first time since 1934, so in 90 years, so it was a great success, which I’m very proud of and glad to be a part of all that, while also having more bills signed into law — stand-alones — than anyone in 40 years,” Peters said.
Peters’ success landed him another term leading the campaign committee.
He suggested his colleagues understand that the campaign operation is very much a part of the business, but he takes steps to keep the two roles separate.
“It’s separate from all I do professionally, and then I continue to work to build relationships with my colleagues across the aisle. … I am really very serious about developing relationships of trust with my colleagues and ultimately that wins the day when it comes to being able to legislate and solve tough problems,” Peters said.
On the list of accomplishments, the senator also seemed particularly eager to talk about multiple pieces of legislation to address toxic substances referred to as PFAS, including dealing with airport runoff.
As for the 118th Congress, Peters said that his priorities include addressing expiring authorizations related to pipeline safety and chemical security, as well as working to secure federal information from hackers.