Alaska News

How Congress turned its back on earmarks -- and what it means for Alaska

WASHINGTON -- When it comes to spending, Congress is a long way from the its pork-barrel past -- procedurally, at least.

Years after earmarks were booted out of Washington, D.C., Congress is finally getting down to the business of the budget, working its way through the now-rare process of deciding what gets spent where.

But what an earmark-free Washington means for federal funds heading to Alaska is increasingly unclear. Gone are the line-item offers to parochial projects and bridges to, well, wherever.

Instead, Congress is now in the midst of crafting massive, complex appropriations bills -- a rarity in recent years -- with hopes of meeting Republicans' goal to draw the nation out of deficit for the first time since 2001.

And those who prefer to send funding home directly, rather than via government agencies and already-approved programs, are still suffering from the 2005 explosion over the so-called "bridge to nowhere," a project touted by the late Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young.

There's clearly no money now for the proposed bridge connecting Ketchikan with Gravina Island. And the now-infamous "bridge to nowhere" is still tossed about regularly by fiscal conservatives as the epitome of wasteful spending.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., released a report on Thursday titled "Jurassic Pork," which needed only reach the third paragraph before mentioning "the notorious Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska."


The proposed Knik Arm bridge, which would connect Anchorage to undeveloped land in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, has also been stymied by the earmark ban.

"I've never given up on that attempt," Young said last week, noting that the highway trust fund authorization for the bridge is up soon. "It's going to be a lot more difficult instead of a direct designation," but "I'll figure out a way to do it," he said.

"I think it's one of the worst things that ever happened to the legislative process," Young said of the earmark ban. He suggested that about 90 percent of members agree with him, but "don't have the courage" to say so, lest they be marked as contributing to the deficit.

Murkowski: 'A very difficult spot'

Since the Senate voted to ban earmarks, Congress has only passed a budget once -- the first real budget since 1997. After the federal government shutdown in October 2013, Congress passed a $1.01 trillion budget deal that December, guiding spending into 2015. It included $63 billion in automatic spending cuts and saved three-quarters of the "sequestration" spending cuts for 2015.

And in May, for the first time in six years, the House and Senate jointly passed an overarching budget plan, allowing for $3.9 trillion in spending in 2016, and cutting the nation's spending by $5.3 trillion over the next decade. The plan is to slowly move the country out of the red -- zeroing out the deficit for the first time since 2001.

But the plan is just an overall cap, and now various congressional committees are struggling to find ways to fund federal programs without busting the budget.

And it's leading to some interesting outcomes.

On Thursday morning, Sen. Lisa Murkowski found herself in an awkward position when Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois offered an amendment at an appropriations hearing that would fund a $940 million Arctic icebreaker. Murkowski regularly talks up the need for Arctic icebreakers, and recently introduced a bill to authorize spending for several.

But, saying she was "in a very difficult spot" because of the spending caps, Murkowski voted against the amendment. "What in effect Sen. Durbin's amendment does is bust the caps," Murkowski said.

That doesn't mean lawmakers can't send any money home -- just that much of it goes through the military, the agencies and the states, and they have less control over smaller projects.

On Thursday, the appropriations committee review of military spending ultimately approved a budget of $575.9 billion, including $8.2 billion for the Missile Defense Agency, which is in part targeted at developing long-range discrimination radar in Alaska.

The same day, the committee approved a Commerce, Justice and Science budget bill providing funding for a variety of fisheries activities and research, $25 million for sonar mapping of the Arctic coastline, a provision asking NOAA to consider focusing on abandoned vessel cleanup, and requiring a report on the resources necessary to operate the coastal buoy system in Alaska's Arctic.

Next week the appropriations committee will tackle budgets for Homeland Security, Interior, environment and related agencies.

Emperor of Earmarks

Sen. Ted Stevens was known as the Emperor of Earmarks during his time in Washington, particularly his time spent on the appropriations committee.

But in fact, he wasn't really the biggest spender in the Senate, and he certainly wasn't alone. Earmarks quintupled between 1996 and 2005, when they reached $23 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

For the fiscal year 2008 budget, Stevens was ranked third in the Senate, bringing in 160 earmarks for $456 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He fell to 23rd in fiscal year 2009, sponsoring or co-sponsoring 39 earmarks worth $238 million.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who now has plum spots on the Senate Appropriations Committee and as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was 89th in FY 2008, 17th in FY 2009 -- supporting $257 million in earmarks -- and fell back to 78th in fiscal year 2010, sponsoring or co-sponsoring 57 earmarks worth nearly $80 million.


Don Young wasn't first, but was certainly in the top of his class when it came to earmarks. And he said he does still have some success -- largely due to personal relationships.

It's precisely the earmarks that fiscal conservatives want to go after that Young says are the most important: big projects for rural areas that could never possibly spend that money themselves. Without earmarks, "it's hard to put money into small communities," Young said.

For example, the Center Against Government Waste regularly fights to eliminate the Denali Commission, a program to build infrastructure in rural Alaska that has drawn hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks.

'This is what people are elected for'

In a time when members of the House and Senate have trouble agreeing on just about anything, some on the outside think it'd be wise to bring earmarks back and add a little bartering power back into the mix.

Those in favor of bringing back the earmarks also argue that it hasn't made a real dent in federal spending, since earmarks accounted for single-digit percentages of trillion-dollar budgets.

And Young argues that that money is getting parceled out by the wrong people: "This is what people are elected for," he said in an interview. The Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse, and "by having an earmark ban, we've transferred the process to really, the president," he said. Congress appropriates funds to the federal agencies and "then they decide" how to spend it, he said.

It's "unconstitutional as the devil," he said.

Not all of Alaska's delegation agrees.


"I'm okay with the current way in which we're operating," Sen. Dan Sullivan said in an interview.

"My strong conviction is that with regard to Alaska, Alaskans would easily take the deal of, 'hey, provide us more opportunity with regard to access to federal lands, access to economic opportunities … less regulations, and we'll take that deal over additional earmarks any day,' " he said.

Sullivan says he's "absolutely not" against federal spending, and points to infrastructure through the highway bills, and funded by the highway trust fund. Alaska, as a young state, is "behind on infrastructure," he said.

"But the broader issue from my perspective is … we have to undertake policies to grow the economy." Key to that will be upcoming congressional initiatives to peel back the "tangled web of federal red tape," Sullivan said.

"I think you can make the argument where it's needed. I mean, we haven't had the opportunity to build a major road in Alaska in decades," Sullivan said. "Some people think that's spending ... but it also relates to the permitting process."

Given their committee assignments, Sullivan and Young will have the chance to weigh in on infrastructure funding as the timeline runs out to find a long-term fix for highway funding at the end of July. Sullivan sits on the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, and Young on the House's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Something Sullivan heard at a recent Commerce Committee hearing on aviation infrastructure really drove it home for him, he said. He had asked the head of Sea-Tac Airport, which had just added a new runway, how long it took to build.

"Three years was his answer. I said, 'how long did it take for you to permit that runway?' Fifteen years. Literally, there was an audible gasp in the hearing room when he said that."

So, Sullivan said, "these are costs. These are taxes, the more you delay. But we're going to be working ... (on) regulatory reform to make sure these projects come on line more quickly."

Correction: In a previous version of this story, Rep. Don Young's comments about the proposed Knik Arm bridge were incorrectly placed as a reference to the proposed Gravina Island bridge.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is Alaska Dispatch News' Washington, DC reporter, and she covers the legislation, regulation and litigation that impact the Last Frontier.  Erica came to ADN after years as a reporter covering energy at POLITICO. Before that, she covered environmental policy at a DC trade publication and worked at several New York dailies.