Murkowski readies for divided Congress; favors bringing back earmarks
Sen. Lisa Murkowski is hopeful the recent progress that has been made restoring the federal budgeting process can be continued and believes the new Congress needs to reestablish its authority by restoring a practice that’s become bad word in Washington, D.C.
“I am one who believes very, very strongly that with a divided landscape what we do is we don’t say ‘Nothing can be done.’ What we do is we look for the opportunities to unify around shared goals and opportunities for bipartisanship,” Murkowski said about working in a Congress that will have a Democrat-controlled House and a Republican-run Senate come January. “It’s not what we can’t do, but what we can do and what we will do.”
Alaska’s senior U.S. senator discussed budgeting, health care, infrastructure and other issues Nov. 9 during an hour-long talk hosted by the Alaska policy think tank Commonwealth North.
Murkowski has touted the work Congress has done this year to fund the federal government in fiscal year 2019, which started Oct. 1, through the normal process of passing 12 appropriations bills for the plethora of departments and agencies and not resorting to last-minute continuing resolutions and omnibus budget bills to avoid government shutdowns.
She chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee covering the Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency and the Forest Service.
Budget bills require a 60-vote minimum before reaching the Senate floor, so passing them usually requires significant compromise.
Congress had approved bills covering roughly 75 percent of 2019 discretionary spending before breaking for Election Day, according to Murkowski, who said most of the appropriations packages passed the Senate with broad bipartisan support. The remaining agencies are funded through Dec. 7.
The key to restarting normal budgeting order, which had been mostly dead since about 2010, was getting rid of “poison-pill” riders — partisan policy mandates often attached to the appropriations bills — that can immediately kill otherwise popular legislation.
For example, Murkowski in prior years routinely inserted language into her Interior, EPA and Forest Service budget bills requiring the Forest Service to stop its push to quickly end old-growth logging in the Tongass National Forest and exempt Alaska from the controversial Roadless Rule.
Additionally, she said Congress needs to take another step back to move forward by bringing back the earmark.
Officially banned by Republicans after they took over the House of Representatives in 2011 in the name of good governance, earmarks are one-off appropriations to specific projects or entities.
The $223 million earmark in 2005 to build a bridge between Ketchikan and Gravina Island — the site of the city’s airport — is possibly the most infamous earmark in recent history. Known nationally as the “Bridge to Nowhere,” the appropriation was eventually stripped from an otherwise unrelated spending bill.
Federal agency personnel have decided specific project spending since earmarks were cut.
Murkowski said allowing earmarks is the only way Congress can truly reassert the power it has ceded to the executive branch to set the legislative spending priorities of the country, a fundamental role specifically laid out in the Constitution.
“You’re going to hear me say the word. Think about it. We’re a pretty unique state here, but if we’re trying to compete in a formula (funding program) that is designed to measure how things look today, how are we ever going to move out on an Arctic port? Our job must be to invest in the future, to drive how things will be,” Murkowski said.
“What we as Republicans did some years back was to say there’s way too much dark stuff that’s going on with appropriations so we need to get rid of earmarks. What we needed to do was what we were directing ourselves to do, which was to increase the transparency; have it be wide open to the world.”
Health care, infrastructure
On other major issues the new Congress will be faced with Murkowski is positive on the prospect of progress on some and lukewarm on others.
With Democrats taking control of the House, she said health care debates should shrink to focus on smaller, less contentious points where common ground can be found, such as dealing with high prescription drug costs.
“We’re going to be shifting from this pressure that we had of repealing the ACA to one where I believe we’re going to be focused on stabilizing the (insurance) markets in the individual plans,” Murkowski said.
She suggested that legislation like, if not a reemergence of, the popular but unsuccessful bipartisan Murray-Alexander Senate bill proposed late last year could be a way to improve the country’s health insurance situation.
The bill aimed to control rapidly rising premiums in individual insurance markets caused in part by small numbers of high-cost patients, and to increase competition among insurance providers.
However, Murkowski said she is much more skeptical regarding the prospect of a large infrastructure funding plan, which has been floated nationally as an issue where bipartisan agreement could be reached over the next two years.
“I want to talk about infrastructure, absolutely, but I’m also cognizant that we’ve got a deficit that we also have to address,” she said.
Making major investments in the nation’s basic infrastructure was a primary part of President Donald Trump’s campaign message, but his $1.5 trillion infrastructure funding concept — with $200 billion in federal money matched with roughly $1.3 trillion in state and local spending — hasn’t gained much momentum. An increase in the gas tax, which hasn’t changed since 1993, has also been floated as a means to pay for projects but also faces significant opposition.
Murkowski said she doesn’t think such a plan would do much for rural states without large populations or much existing infrastructure.
“If you’re back east and you’ve got a lot of folks and you can put in toll roads that pay for themselves it works, it makes sense and you can do it,” Murkowski commented. “We can’t do that here. I don’t know anybody that’s willing to pay tolls that are steep enough to facilitate some of our smaller roads and smaller projects.”
At least in the short-term, the best path for Alaska and other rural states is likely increasing investments in existing federal programs, she said. Federal highway and airport construction formula grant programs currently provide nearly $1 billion per year for Alaska projects dependent upon a small state match, but there are numerous other, smaller infrastructure development programs through other federal agencies such as Agriculture and Energy.
The Alaska congressional delegation also continues to push for security and research infrastructure — particularly new icebreakers — with limited success, Murkowski acknowledged.
She referred to icebreakers as a “floating northern border wall” and “polar security cutters,” adding that she’s “all about changing the name if it gets me what we’re looking for.”
She said imparting the importance of developing a small fleet of icebreakers on Trump administration officials and others in Congress continues to be a challenge, as it has been under other recent administrations as well.
The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress over the summer provides the Defense Department the authority to contract for up to six polar-class icebreakers. A contract for the first DOD-funded vessel is to be awarded sometime in 2019 with construction of the second starting in 2022 and the rest coming on a one-per-year schedule.
However, actually paying for the vessels is still be subject to the annual appropriations process.
The prospects of alternative financing or leasing icebreakers have been brought up more frequently of late.
Currently, the country has an operable icebreaking fleet of one.
Outside of direct appropriations for the vessels that federal studies have pegged to cost between $700 million and $1 billion each, there is a fear that paying for them through regular shipbuilding budgets would consume funds needed for other vessels, Sen. Dan Sullivan told the Journal earlier this year.
“There are some out-of-the-box opportunities that we might be able to pursue that might help advance an icebreaking fleet in this country but we have to have the commitment to do it,” Murkowski stressed. “And if you don’t have leadership that believes this is an issue it’s pretty tough to get anybody to agree that this is where we need to spend our resources.”
Finally, Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she continues working on the energy policy overhaul she and ranking committee Democrat Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington developed over several years.
The omnibus energy bill seemed poised for final approval in December 2016 after passing both the House and Senate with bipartisan support, but House Republican leaders suddenly changed their demands in a conference committee and ultimately chose to leave the Capitol early for holiday celebrations rather than finish negotiations, a fuming Murkowski said at the time.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].