Chaos in the Alaska State House, or is it?

While Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as Speaker of the House in Congress last week, Republican and Democrat legislators in the Alaska House of Representatives remain deadlocked today over who will be sworn in as Speaker of the House in Juneau.

Absent a resolution, the Alaska House of Representatives will experience its own government shutdown beginning on Tuesday. In a memo to legislators released on Thursday, the head of Human Resources for the Alaska Legislature notified lawmakers that employees of the Alaska House of Representatives would be automatically laid off beginning on Tuesday if legislators continue to be deadlocked on the election of a Speaker of the House.

While the conflict between Republicans and Democrats grabs headlines, the more crucial conflict has been building in the legislature for many years. It is over the idea, immortalized by Nancy Pelosi herself, that ‘We have to commit to passing the bill so that we can find out what’s in the bill’. The public has rejected this concept repeatedly, but it never stops someone in the legislature from getting up each year and asking legislators to pledge to support certain votes (like budget bills) in advance, long before they have been written.

For my own part, I share the view that committing to vote for a bill even before it has been written, and before you know what it will contain, is a form of legislative malpractice. It is to delegate the vote of your district, your constituents, to another legislator who owes your constituents no loyalty whatsoever.

While the trajectory of the Alaska Legislature over the past few years has been away from such practices and toward greater transparency and accountability, it is by no means clear that house legislators this year will put loyalty to constituents above loyalty to “the caucus” comprised of their fellow legislators in Juneau.

Recognizing that pledging loyalty to the caucus has grown increasingly unpopular with voters, some politicians have begun describing their loyalty to the caucus as a display of “bipartisanship”. Really, you can’t make this stuff up.

In a repeat of what took place two years ago, three Republican legislators have now aligned with Democrat legislators to oppose Republican control of the Alaska House of Representatives. Yes, you read that correctly.

At stake is whether Governor Dunleavy’s agenda will be approved by the legislature, or whether it will be blocked by a group of bipartisan legislators in the state house. One of the three Republicans currently aligned with the Democrats, Rep. Gary Knopp (R-Kenai), has been outspoken in his desire that Republican and Democrat legislators in the House need to come together and form a caucus to provide a counterweight to Governor Dunleavy’s agenda.

Gov. Dunleavy campaigned on repealing SB91, protecting the historical calculation of the PFD, and reducing state spending, all of which require the support of legislators in the Alaska House of Representatives. The stakes in this conflict are high. If legislators in Juneau elect a speaker of the house who is opposed to these policies, that speaker can block any or all of them until the next election.

Legislators opposing Gov. Dunleavy’s agenda are trying to label their opposition as “bipartisanship”. But are they in fact setting aside their partisan bias to better serve the people of Alaska? I wish they were. Unfortunately, with this type of “bipartisanship”, SB91 will continue to wreak havoc in Alaskan communities, the PFD will continue to be diverted to the unquenchable thirst of the state bureaucracy, and state spending will continue on its present trajectory.

Now I can appreciate, on a very personal level, the value of legislators standing up against an Alaska governor who has lost his way. For the past two years, no legislator has been more consistent in opposing the excesses of the Walker Administration than I have. The legislative and executive branches of government sparring with one another on matters of policy is a fundamental and vital part of our constitutional form of government. But opposition to sound policy isn’t bipartisanship, not under any traditional meaning of the term. It is simply politicians siding with special interests against Alaskans and then using the fact that politicians from the opposing party are doing it too to justify their misbehavior.

The partisanship that every Alaskan should despise is the kind that leads legislators to vote against good policy (and for bad policy) not on the merits of the policy itself, but simply on the basis that other legislators are voting for or against it. That is the kind of partisanship that should be universally despised by every Alaskan.

Ironically, that is exactly the type of behavior being demanded today by those like Rep. Knopp crying most loudly for bipartisanship. In one breath we are told that Republicans (who currently outnumber Democrats 23 to 16) in the Alaska House of Representative shouldn’t be permitted to elect a Republican Speaker of the House because they can’t be counted on to vote in lock-step. In the very next breath, we’re told that a group of Democrats and Republicans agreeing in advance to vote in lock-step with one another, regardless of personal convictions, is a stronger, more stable way of governing, and that they should be the ones to elect a Speaker of the House. This is held up as legislators practicing the virtue of bipartisanship. Nonsense.

When you stop to think about it, there is nothing bipartisan about blindly toeing the party line just because that party line is aligned with special interests instead of a major political party.

And let’s be honest about one other thing while we’re at it. When you’re outnumbered 23 to 16 in the state house, as Democrats are today, “bipartisan leadership” is going to sound like a great idea to any Democrat legislators still trying to hold on to power.

But this isn’t an issue that is limited to Democrats. If a Republican legislator is voting blindly to put members of their own party in leadership positions to which they are not suited they are being just as partisan as their Democrat colleagues voting blindly to elect so-called bipartisan leadership.

Keep in mind, the election of a speaker of the house is the single most pivotal moment in each two year legislative session for members of the state house. The decision of who is going to run the state house needs to be about much more than simply an individual’s party affiliation (or lack of affiliation, in the case of our last governor).

The question legislators need to be asking is whether the policy recommendations put forward by Gov. Dunleavy are sound, and if they are, which leaders in the legislature will provide the best leadership to support those policies through the legislative process.

And that’s a question that few legislators are asking today.

Rep. David Eastman has served in the Alaska State House representing the Mat-Su since 2017; He ran on a platform of fighting for genuine conservative reform, fiscally and socially, and remains committed to delivering on that promise.