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Treadwell: Controlling US spending doesn't mean giving up Arctic icebreakers

  • Author: Mead Treadwell
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published June 17, 2015

We are told the devil's tool is temptation. Last week, some members of the the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee used devilish tactics to tempt Alaska's senior senator, Lisa Murkowski with a brand new icebreaker for the Coast Guard to operate in the Arctic. Murkowski, a Republican, stuck with the nation's spending caps, and voted against it.

Hers was an act of courage. Murkowski's no vote has brought her some heat at home, and with an election little more than a year away, I'm sure she would have loved to bring back an icebreaker.

Murkowski has said more than once that we need new icebreakers, and more than one of them. Within the budget process, she has passed measures to advance getting them, and introduced legislation with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, authorizing the construction of three icebreakers. The U.S. is relying now on the Healy, which can't handle heavy ice, and the Polar Star, a heavy icebreaker built 45 years or so ago. Recently refurbished, often repaired, the Polar Star is running long past its useful life.

Alaska's coastal communities need the protection the Coast Guard offers, whatever the weather, whatever the ice conditions are. Six nations adjoining the Arctic are now shipping energy in and sometimes through this ocean, and are drilling for more. Icebreakers help us police against -- and respond to -- oil spills. Ships can get in trouble, and we relearned in the winter of 2011-2012 that an icebreaker is damn handy when nature doesn't cooperate, and a company (in that case, a fuel distributor) needs an icebreaker escort for a delivery to keep serving its customers.

More commerce is coming to the Arctic. To rely on distant icebreakers owned by Russia, China, Korea, Canada, Sweden, Norway and Finland doesn't always work either; when an icebreaker is needed for a national security mission, American commanders need American ships flying the American flag.

At close to a billion dollars apiece, by Coast Guard estimates, icebreakers are hard to get. Murkowski knows this, and as head of the Arctic Caucus is working with other members of the Alaska delegation, to educate the Senate, the House, the Pentagon and the White House on our icebreaker needs. She's making progress.

In a recent hearing, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter asked for Murkowski's guidance in forming an Arctic agenda. Last week's Appropriations bill at question actually includes three separate provisions added by Sen. Murkowski that are Arctic-focused. One of these was actually demanding answers from the Defense Department about their logistical plan for an icebreaker. It was heartening to hear President Obama speak to icebreaker needs at a recent Coast Guard Academy commencement.

But America has another problem that also endangers our security. The federal government is over $18 trillion in debt, and another vote to extend the debt ceiling is expected later this year. If the Fed raises interest rates, which is also expected soon, the cost of our debt will also climb. Murkowski is a leader in a majority that intends to keep the 2011 spending caps 73 senators then established to control the budget.

One of those 73 senators was, yes, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, himself, who now sees the caps as worth ignoring and is clearly planting the seeds of temptation in front of others. His temptation this week, in the form of a shiny new red icebreaker, shouldn't change that. Durbin's icebreaker amendment was a crass, manipulative political attempt to gain Murkowski's approval for financial recklessness -- and she saw it for what it was, casting her vote for responsible spending. She told him as much in the hearing, to his face.

Icebreakers and a balanced budget are not incompatible. The nation could get sensible about public-private partnerships, and look to the private sector to share the risk in building and operating this capacity for the nation. Private icebreakers, like the ones built for Shell's exploration in the Chukchi Sea, could be available sooner, cost less than the almost billion-dollar price tag Sen. Durbin offered, and could be paid for over time by leasing.

Alaskans, through their Legislature last year, joined a compact with other states plugging for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Both our U.S. Senators have sponsored a similar constitutional amendment in the Senate, and Congressman Don Young -- himself a big icebreaker advocate -- has signed on to a resolution that would endorse the state-by-state effort to balance the budget.

No one in next year's election debate can seriously question Murkowski's leadership on Arctic issues. But the question of how "conservative" a fiscal conservative must be, will inevitably be part of the debate. Alaskans should expect more reckless "temptation" as we advance toward the election.

Mead Treadwell is president of Pt Capital. He was Alaska's lieutenant governor from 2010 to 2014. Long an advocate for new U.S. Arctic icebreakers, he represents Alaska in an interstate compact commission to advance a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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