What Duncan Hunter’s indictment means for the Arctic

The California congressman was long a prominent supporter of plans to acquire new heavy icebreakers for the U.S. Coast Guard.

By Melody Schreiber - September 11, 2018
Congressman Duncan Hunter leaves federal court in San Diego, California, U.S. September 4, 2018. (Mike Blake / Reuters)

What does the scandal surrounding a U.S. Congressman from sunny Southern California have to do with the Arctic?

More than you might think.

As chair of the House subcommittee on the Coast Guard and maritime transportation, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican, has long argued for a stronger U.S. Coast Guard — and especially the recapitalization of the icebreaker fleet.

But as Hunter now faces criminal charges on corruption, will these and other Arctic issues fall by the wayside?

Earlier this year, funding for a new heavy icebreaker, once thought to be assured, was thrown into uncertainty when the House zeroed out its budget in July. The Senate version of the budget does have funding for the icebreakers, so Congress will iron out the differences in their budgets during conference.

When those negotiations happen, will there be anyone to argue for icebreakers now?

It’s too soon to say.

First of all, Hunter’s not gone yet. Although he’s occupied fighting the charges against him and running for reelection, and he no longer chairs any committees, he can still provide input on legislation as long as he holds office.

But secondly and more significantly, Although Hunter has been a voice for icebreaker funding and other Arctic security issues, his has not been the only voice.

Representatives Don Young (a Republican from Alaska) and John Garamendi (a Democrat from California) have also been vocal leaders on Arctic issues in the subcommittee and in the House. And in the Senate, Alaska’s Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have championed Arctic defense funding and other issues.

In fact, Hunter’s departure from the Coast Guard subcommittee could allow it to go in a new direction — possibly with an even greater focus on Arctic issues.

Here’s how that could happen: Hunter may yet be reelected, since he represents a very red district. However, even if Hunter returns to the House in the fall he won’t lead any committees with criminal charges hanging over his head.

That means the chair on the Coast Guard and maritime transportation subcommittee is now open.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan will appoint an acting chair to serve until the midterm elections. At that point, the majority speaker will either continue with that appointment or choose a new chair.

The next most senior representative on the subcommittee? Alaska’s Don Young.

The chair is not always given to the most senior member, of course. But if the speaker does appoint Young, either before or after midterms, Arctic issues will very likely continue to be a priority and could even increase in visibility.

“The committee as a whole has consistently supported icebreakers and I remain committed to ensuring the Coast Guard and our military branches are working together to develop a comprehensive strategy for the Arctic,” Young says.

“I look forward to working with my colleagues to advance U.S. icebreaking capacity and prioritizing the Arctic.”

Garamendi says he’ll continue to be an outspoken icebreaker backer on the committee, too.

“Regardless of what decisions the majority makes about replacing Chairman Hunter, in my role as ranking member I will continue to advocate for a robust icebreaker fleet for the Coast Guard,” Garamendi says.

“I’m proud of what this subcommittee has accomplished so far to advance this issue, and I expect this work to continue without interruption.”