WASHINGTON — As Congress races toward the Dec. 16 deadline to fund the government, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is pushing to secure nearly half a billion dollars for Alaska projects as one of a handful of Senate Republicans who embraces earmarks.
After a 10-year hiatus, congressionally directed spending — commonly referred to as earmarks — returned to Capitol Hill in 2021. Members of Congress could once again request funding during the budget process for governmental or nonprofit projects in their district. Murkowski, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is advocating for $491 million for Alaska projects for FY23, over double her $230 million request for FY22.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., included Murkowski’s requests in a proposed bill posted in July, and they are currently being negotiated with the House. They include over 130 projects for communities across Alaska, ranging in scale from $17,000 to support child care facility improvements at a social services provider in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough to $99 million to fund a fitness center annex at Fort Wainwright.
“This is something that we worked very aggressively as a team here in the office, trying to work with communities to identify where their priorities are and have them be reflected back through the appropriations process,” Murkowski said in an interview earlier this month.
Alaska’s federal lawmakers have a long history with earmarks — they were a defining part of the legacies of late Republican Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young. Among allies, they earned reputations for “bringing home the bacon,” and among foes they were called names like the “king of pork.” Young’s $230 million earmark for what opponents dubbed the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Ketchikan, a project that was later canceled, has become something of a congressional legend.
“Alaska’s senators and representatives have always tried to use their power as legislators to do good by Alaska,” said Kevin Kosar, an expert on earmarks from the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank.
In 2011, Congress outlawed earmarks due to corruption concerns after several appropriations-related ethics scandals. A Democrat-controlled Congress resurrected the practice a decade later, promising to improve transparency by requiring members of Congress to publish their requests and to certify in writing that they don’t stand to gain financially from the projects. They also instituted a cap so that earmarked projects can only make up 1% of discretionary spending.
Some Republican lawmakers have argued that congressionally directed spending is financially irresponsible and can lead to shady backroom deals.
Murkowski in the interview this month said earmarks are a key tool for members of Congress to direct money home for their constituents rather than let federal agencies steer the funds.
“I am one who believes very strongly that it is the prerogative of Congress to take seriously the role of appropriations rather than cede that to the agencies. That is not what was intended,” Murkowski said. “And I think we lose some of our own constitutional authority when we say, ‘Well, just let the agency decide.’ ”
She said members of Congress have intimate knowledge of their districts, making them well-positioned to apportion federal dollars.
“Most of the people that are working in these agencies have no idea what the needs of Kotzebue are, don’t understand what it means to be in a community that is not connected by road, and what it means to be in a community where you get your fuel delivered twice a year by barge,” Murkowski said.
Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan has a different philosophy.
Sullivan is one of 34 Republican senators who did not make any earmark requests in FY23. Nine of the 16 Republican senators who did request earmarks are on the Appropriations Committee, like Murkowski.
Sullivan’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story. A Sullivan spokesman told Alaska Public Media last year that the senator uses other means to make the case for federal investment in Alaska.
Kosar said that lawmakers on both sides of the issue cater to the political optics of earmarks.
“Legislators read their constituencies differently,” Kosar said. “Legislators look at their voters that they want to please and say, ‘Yeah, these folks will like that I’m putting money towards a new water treatment plant, or they will like that I am directing money to give cops new tools to reduce violence.’ ”
“Other members say, ‘No, my voters are gonna look at that stuff as pork, and I’m gonna get primaried for pushing pork,’ ” Kosar said. “So they don’t support those sorts of things.”
Murkowski said she felt additional pressure to deliver earmarked funding for Alaska projects this year because no requests were made in the House. Young died in March, just weeks before his earmark requests were due, and Alaska Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola was elected well after the deadline.
“When he suddenly passed and wasn’t there to advocate for any, it did put more of a burden on my back,” Murkowski said of Young.
Alex Ortiz, Peltola’s chief of staff, said in an interview earlier this month that the representative was working with House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., to push to get Murkowski’s requests into the final spending package.