OPINION: Sullivan’s hypocrisy on U.S. spending

During the 2014 election when he ran for what had been Ted Stevens’ seat in the U.S. Senate, Dan Sullivan knew so little about Alaska that during a candidate debate, he could not name the town in which the Salty Dawg Saloon is located. But he was narrowly elected anyway, because he ran as a Republican in a state whose electorate trends center-right to MAGA-crazy, and on the campaign trail, he touted the facts that his mother-in-law had a fish camp on the Yukon River and that he was an officer in the Marine Corps Reserve.

Continuing to wrap himself in the flag, when he arrived in the Senate in 2015, Sullivan arranged to be appointed to the Armed Services Committee and the Veterans Affairs Committee — which, given the importance of military spending to the state economy and the fact that Alaska has more veterans per capita than any other state, was smart politics.

In addition to at every opportunity publicizing national defense as his signature issue, over the past seven years, Alaska’s junior senator has been a stalwart backbench hard-right conservative member of the Senate Republican Conference. In that guise, Sullivan spent four of those years compliantly doing the bidding of Donald J. Trump.

Which is why the brazen hypocrisy Sullivan exhibited on June 1 — when he explained to the Senate why he would vote against the Fiscal Responsibility Act, as the budget agreement President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had negotiated was titled — merits comment.

Calling the budget agreement the Fiscal Responsibility Act was a disingenuous misnomer, because the limits on discretionary spending in the Act will do nothing to prevent the federal debt from increasing from the present $32 trillion to $50 trillion by the end of the decade. That is because members of both parties are too pusillanimous to explain to the American people that there is no way to balance the federal budget, much less begin reducing the debt, without increasing taxes, reducing defense spending and making politically painful changes to Social Security and Medicare.

On the Senate floor, Sullivan explained that the reason he was voting against the Fiscal Responsibility Act was not because it was not fiscally responsible. Instead, he said he was voting no because President Biden and Speaker McCarthy had agreed to freeze defense spending for the coming fiscal year at $886 billion.

Does the United States really need more than 700 military bases and facilities in 85 countries and to be annually spending on defense more money than the next 10 countries — including China, Great Britain, France and Germany — spend combined? Since Sullivan is certain not only that it does but that even more money should be spent on defense, during the Senate debate on the Fiscal Responsibility Act he offered an amendment to reallocate $18 billion from the IRS to the Pentagon as a slush fund for the generals and admirals to spend however they wished.


Before the Senate rejected his amendment, Sullivan argued that “the choice is clear: more Navy ships, soldiers and Marines to protect America or more IRS agents to harass Americans.”

That rhetorical demagoguery was astoundingly hypocritical, because if Dan really believed the U.S. needs to spend more money than it already is spending to build more ships and pay, train and outfit more soldiers and more Marines, then why in 2017 did he vote for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, as Donald Trump titled the bill that, at his behest, the Republican Congress passed that year? To date, that giveaway has drained the U.S. Treasury of $1.7 trillion, which — were it available — is more than enough money and then some to increase the defense budget to the extent Dan now advocates.

Before the vote in the Senate to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer asked Dan whether he agreed with the Congressional Budget Office, which had estimated that the tax cuts contained in the Act would increase the federal budget deficit by $1.4 trillion. Dan said he did not agree because new economic growth would generate tax revenue that would offset the loss. And after the Senate passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Dan celebrated the accomplishment because “this tax reform bill will go a long way in helping hard-working, middle-class Alaskans” and “will put more money in the pockets of middle-class Americans.”

But not only has the increase in the federal budget deficit been larger than the CBO estimated, rather than hard-working Alaskans and other middle-class Americans, according to the Tax Policy Center, “The individual income tax cuts, relative to after-tax income, tilted in favor of high-income taxpayers.” And even worse, according to ProPublica, an arcane provision that lobbyists arranged to bury in the Act whose purported purpose was to benefit “small business” enabled “82 ultrawealthy households collectively to walk away with more than $1 billion in total savings.”

For 40 years, Ted Stevens occupied the seat in the Senate in which Sullivan now sits. For many of those years, Stevens was chairman or ranking member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. That’s why in 2010, when Stevens died in a plane crash, the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff flew from the Pentagon to Anchorage to attend his celebration of life.

Stevens did not live to see Sullivan take his place in the Senate. So who knows whether he would have approved. And knowing what he knew about the ins and outs of the defense budget, were he alive today, what would Stevens think of Sullivan’s demagoguery during the Senate debate on the Fiscal Responsibility Act and his support in 2017 for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act?

I have my own view about what Stevens would think. But mine is just a conjecture. Every Alaskan who cares about national defense and fiscal responsibility should decide for him or herself what he or she thinks. And then give Sullivan a call and let him know. In Anchorage, his office number is 907-271-5915.

Donald Craig Mitchell is an Anchorage attorney, author of the two books on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and “Wampum: How Indian Tribes, the Mafia, and an Inattentive Congress Invented Indian Gaming and Created a $28 Billion Gambling Empire.” He was also a former vice president and general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Donald Craig Mitchell

Donald Craig Mitchell is an Anchorage attorney, author of the two books on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and "Wampum: How Indian Tribes, the Mafia, and an Inattentive Congress Invented Indian Gaming and Created a $28 Billion Gambling Empire."