Indicted and ‘radioactive,’ Rep. Duncan Hunter seeks influence in Congress
To watch Rep. Duncan Hunter on TV is to see a diligent, baritone-voiced congressman championing conservative causes and defending soldiers accused of war crimes.
But on Capitol Hill, Hunter, R-Alpine, is hamstrung, stripped of committee assignments that are vital to a lawmaker’s influence and effectiveness.
Then-House Speaker Paul Ryan forced Hunter to resign from the Armed Services, Education and the Workforce, and Transportation and Infrastructure committees last August, following a 60-count federal indictment accusing Hunter and wife Margaret of illegally spending $250,000 in campaign funds on groceries, an Italian vacation and airfare for the family’s pet rabbit among other personal expenses and filing false records.
The Hunters, who pleaded not guilty – Duncan Hunter denounced the charges as politically motivated – are scheduled for trial in September. Until then, Duncan Hunter, 42, whose district includes most of Temecula, is doing what he can to stay – or at least appear – relevant.
“Politically, Hunter is radioactive,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “The charges against him involve sleazy corruption, not some great matter of national policy. So his influence on other lawmakers is pretty limited.
“The staff can take care of constituent services, but they typically do not (need) much involvement by the member. Yes, members can sit on the floor and cast votes, but it would be extremely rare for a single vote to decide a major measure.”
Lacking committees is “a pretty big deal,” said Robert Boatright, a political science professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. “Legislators without committee assignments are limited in their ability to procure benefits for their districts, and they don’t really have that much to do during the days they spend in Washington.”
“With that said, Republicans are now in the minority, so all Republicans are facing a reduction in their ability to deliver benefits for their constituents. So this is less harmful than it would have been had Republicans remained in the majority.”
It’s unclear whether Hunter’s constituents will notice or care about his lack of committee assignments. “I have noticed no difference either way,” said Temecula Mayor Mike Naggar.
Hunter declined interview requests. His spokesman, Michael Harrison, said the 10-year congressman “will continue working hard on the issues he believes are most important to both his constituents and the country as a whole.”
While being committee-less “is not ideal, it by no means is keeping Congressman Hunter from doing the work he was elected to do,” Harrison added.
Hunter represents California’s 50th Congressional District, a ruby red enclave in a deep-blue state where registered Republican voters outnumber registered Democrats by 13 percentage points.
Hunter, whose father, Duncan Hunter Sr., represented the district for almost 30 years, traditionally cruises to re-election, winning with 63 percent of the vote in 2016 and 71 percent in 2014.
He got just 52 percent of the vote last November in beating Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, who out-raised Hunter and plans to run for the seat in 2020. Hunter campaign ads tying Campa-Najjar, a Christian and native Southern Californian of Palestinian and Mexican heritage, to terrorism spurred accusations of racism and fear-mongering.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put Hunter on its 2020 target list. Besides Campa-Najjar, Democrat Alex Balkin and Republicans Matt Rahn, Bill Wells and Larry Wilske have filed to run for Hunter’s seat in 2020.
Hunter isn’t the only committee-less congressman. Rep. Chris Collins, R-New York, who was charged with insider trading, has no assignments, and Iowa Republican Steve King, lost his committee seats after telling The New York Times “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization – how did that language become offensive?”
“I suppose they can form a ‘pariah caucus,’” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, told POLITICO.
Hunter stood out before his legal woes. Named Washington’s top “Party Animal” by Washingtonian magazine in 2014, Hunter made headlines for vaping during a congressional hearing, and he was one of the first congressmen to endorse then-candidate Donald Trump.
Hunter is still allowed to join legislative caucuses. A list of caucus memberships on his House website includes the Congressional Wine Caucus, Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus, Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, and the House Border Security Caucus.
After being sworn in last month, Hunter announced a “First 100-Day Initiative,” which he described in a February constituent newsletter as a series of bills “to implement common-sense reforms that will benefit the lives of everyday Americans.”
They include the AMERICA Act to protect census respondents’ data, the BRAVE Act to raise the burial allowance for veteran families and the No Funding for Sanctuary Campuses Act, which would deny federal funds to colleges and universities that don’t cooperate with federal efforts to enforce immigration law.
The odds are against Hunter’s bills passing the Democrat-controlled House.
A Marine Corps veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, Hunter has come to the aid of Special Operations Chief Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL accused of murdering an Islamic State prisoner of war, as well as Army Maj. Matt Golsteyn, a Green Beret charged with premeditated murder in the death of a suspected Taliban bomb maker.
Gallagher was charged “based on inconsistent testimony and without any physical evidence,” Hunter wrote in his February newsletter. The congressman has asked the president to review Gallagher’s case.
Regarding Golsteyn, “what I think we have here is a case of what the U.S. government would call compassionate combat,” Hunter told “Fox & Friends” on Wednesday, Feb. 13.
Under George W. Bush and Barack Obama “(the government) wanted us to kill the bad guys, but in the right way, meaning they want us to kill guys compassionately and only under the rules of engagement that they say to you,” Hunter said.
Otherwise, “the U.S. government then is going to try you for murder and put you in jail, even if you’re a decorated Green Beret (or) if you’re a Navy SEAL.”
This year, Hunter has spoken to Fox News other conservative media about border security, his legislation, Gallagher and Golsteyn, the federal government shutdown and his reaction to Trump’s State of the Union Address.
He shares clips of those appearances on social media. None of the interviews posted to his Twitter account in February mention the indictment, although in a Fox News interview shortly after he was charged, Hunter said his wife handled his finances and “was also the campaign manager so whatever she did, that’ll be looked at too, I’m sure, but I didn’t do it.”
‘Can’t do it’
It’s unclear what would happen if Hunter pleads guilty or is convicted, although he likely would face pressure to resign.
Hunter could serve from behind bars, although he couldn’t vote and the House could move to expel him, said Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego political science professor. If Hunter left office before November 2020, a special election would be held to fill his seat.
Without committees, Boatright said Hunter could try to boost his influence in caucuses and informal working groups.
“Otherwise, start thinking through job options for what to do after Congress!” he said. “Or spend more time in the district (and) treat the lack of committee assignments like a sort of sabbatical.”
Hunter’s staff “will put out material making it seem as if he is doing a lot, even though he is not,” Pitney said.
“Trying to be an effective House member without serving on a committee is like trying to play in the Super Bowl without leaving the locker room. You can’t do it.”