One of the most anonymous senators in Washington is about to become a lot more prominent.
Michigan Democrat Gary Peters this month will rise to the ranking membership of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, replacing defeated Sen. Claire McCaskill. The post makes him the top Democrat on a body expected to play a key role in hot-topic issues—particularly border security—just as he prepares to seek reelection. It also sets him up as a potential chairman in 2021.
“I do think it helps him for reelection having a high-profile position like this,” said T.J. Bucholz, a Michigan Democratic strategist. “I think the Senate in the next cycle could flip to the Democrats if the right variables are in play.”
The committee is sometimes overshadowed by more powerful bodies, including the Appropriations Committee and a handful of other panels. And Peters’s ability to rise to a ranking membership with just four years of seniority speaks to the lack of interest in the committee’s work by longer-tenured colleagues.
Most of the Democrats on the committee were elected within the past two years. The most senior Democrat on the panel, four-term Sen. Tom Carper, is already at the top of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
“Doubt it will affect the election outcome,” said Amb. Ron Weiser, the outgoing chair of the Michigan Republican Party, of Peters’s new role. “Because most of the voting public doesn’t care.”
Nevertheless, the position is an opportunity for Peters to find a spotlight for the first time since coming to the Senate in 2014, when he was the sole freshman Democrat elected the same year that Republicans flipped the upper chamber. He ranks among the least-known senators, with a name identification similar to that of newly appointed freshmen, according to Morning Consult’s most recent quarterly polling.
The most high-profile topic will be border security; the fight over wall funding is what precipitated the current partial government shutdown. Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson said in a brief interview in November that the committee will be “focused on” the issue, as well as cyber security, protecting infrastructure, and “countering extreme violence.”
Peters in an interview late last month said he was “uniquely positioned” to weigh in on border security, noting that Michigan boasts a “diverse population” as well as a long border with Canada that requires both security and commercial considerations at key ports of entry with a major American trading partner.
“As we are dealing with these issues, we have to also make sure we’re doing it in a way that’s consistent with core American values,” Peters said.
Peters voted with other Senate Democrats last month against advancing a House bill with $5.7 billion for President Trump’s “wall” along the southern border, saying he prefers more effective “see-through fencing” to combat tunneling. Peters said he wants to address the backlog of asylum requests as well.
Peters also said he plans to zero in on the more mundane but noncontroversial task of eliminating government waste, a goal Johnson shares. “I plan to spend a lot of time on the GAC part of HSGAC,” Peters quipped.
That aligns with his previous legislative achievements, capped off by congressional passage of legislation he wrote aiming to cut down on storage of unused government equipment.
Peters’s first bill that became law, signed by President Obama in 2015, similarly encouraged agencies to repair federal vehicles with remanufactured automotive parts in hopes of cutting costs without compromising performance safety.
“Some of these things are not going to get headlines on TV news,” he said shortly before the bill’s near unanimous passage in the House, “but are the kind of work we need to be doing in Congress to make government work better for the people back home.”
As the top Democrat on the Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management Subcommittee, he held two hearings on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances as part of a broader push to address the chemical contaminants. He said he’ll continue to “aggressively examine” the issue, adding that accountability for spending of federal dollars on the Flint, Michigan water crisis is “certainly something we need to look at.”
Peters seems to thrive politically on his desire to save constituents money, and it could prove to be a useful talking point in his reelection campaign in a state that Trump carried in 2016.
For example, his Senate campaign in 2014 ran one commercial featuring his wife and daughters lightly mocking his preference for worn-out clothing and appliances as evidence of his frugality.
“I approve this message,” Peters closed, “because my family did this ad for free.”