WASHINGTON — Long the reigning champion of earmarks and never a state to turn down federal money, Alaska may have to change its ways as Congress reconsiders a practice that's come to symbolize runaway government spending.
House Republicans last week voted on an earmark ban that will take effect when they assume control of the chamber in January. Their Senate Republican counterparts also approved a moratorium — notably without the support of Alaska's senior senator, Lisa Murkowski.
Democrats who run the Senate have made no move to discontinue the practice. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said he's made a case that earmarking should continue, as long as the process is transparent and those requesting the spending are accountable for it. He called the legacy of earmarking in Alaska both "positive and negative," but said he won't hesitate to encourage fellow Democrats to continue earmarking, with conditions.
"I don't have a problem saying what I think. I'll stand up and say, "Here's what we're doing, and everyone in the caucus should do that exact same thing. There should be no reason why you don't do this. The public demands transparency, they demand accountability,'" Begich said.
Murkowski called the GOP vote "messaging," rather than a substantive move to reduce federal spending. Earmarks accounted for $15.9 billion of the federal budget in fiscal 2010, which ended on Sept. 30. At just under 1 percent of all federal spending, a full earmark ban would barely have dented last year's $1.29 trillion deficit.
The flow of federal money to Alaska played a key role in Murkowski's re-election. Her Republican opponent in the U.S. Senate race, Joe Miller, called earmarks "the single most corrupting influence in Congress." But throughout the campaign, she and Democrat Scott McAdams both said they would follow in the tradition of former Sen. Ted Stevens and continue to seek as much federal money for Alaska as possible.
"I think it is a mistake to suggest to the public that by taking this action somehow or another we are reducing the deficit, we are reducing spending," she said last week in Washington . "It ties the hands of the legislative body. The Constitution says the power of the purse is with the legislative body. We are effectively handing that over to the executive branch. I think that's misplaced and I don't think we should be doing it. Again, it's a message as opposed to really making a difference for the bottom line."
Critics of earmarking have for years maintained that the process erodes public confidence in federal spending by allowing powerful lawmakers — and not need or merit — to determine how money is spent in a small portion of the federal budget.
Although earmarks are only about 1 percent of federal spending and have been under fire for half the decade, Tea Party-affiliated candidates seized on them this election season as a symbol of out-of-control federal spending.
The effort to rein them in began earlier this year when House Democrats decided to ban earmarks to for-profit companies. Republicans responded with a one-year, flat-out ban on earmarks in appropriations bills. They voted this week to continue that ban.
Earmarks lead to corruption, said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the original crusaders against the practice. He pointed to Kevin Ring, an ex-lobbyist who worked for Jack Abramoff, and who was convicted this month of bribing public officials with expensive meals and exclusive event tickets. Ring was accused of showering gifts on staffers in exchange for earmarks and other favors for Abramoff.
"You know what Mr. Abramoff was followed by? Earmarks. Earmarks and corruption," McCain said. "And I know it's corruption because I've seen it with my own eyes. And it will go a long way toward restoring the confidence of the American people in what we do here. No bridges to nowhere."
Yet in the state that's home to the aforementioned bridges to nowhere, earmarks have been sliding, in part because Stevens is no longer around to influence the process, but also because it's going out of fashion.
Alaska 's congressional delegation landed $227 million in earmarks in 2009, compared to $87 million in 2010, according to a report released in February from the nonpartisan budget watchdogs at Taxpayers for Common Sense. Alaska went from No.1 per capita to No. 6.
Alaska's state government already has backed away from requesting as many earmarks, and is more deliberative about the ones it asks the congressional delegation to pursue, said John Katz, who represents Gov. Sean Parnell's office in Washington .
The governor also encourages state agencies to seek out grants and other sources of funding before asking for an earmark. This year, they asked for just eight valued at $23.4 million, Katz said.
"Well before this election it was clear that the number of earmarks was being reduced, and the amount of money allocated to particular earmarks was also decreasing," Katz said. "We've factored that for the last two or three years in the state's internal review and our recommendations to Congress."
Some Alaska institutions are worried, in particular the Denali Commission.
"Of course we are," said Joel Neimeyer, the federal co-chair of the commission, a federal-state agency long championed by Stevens, and one that was created to funnel money into infrastructure projects in rural Alaska.
In past years, Stevens used earmarks to increase the commission's baseline budget, as set by the president. With earmarks now in question, they commission is not sure it'll ask for extra money, Neimeyer said. The commission is prohibited from lobbying, so he said all he can do is point to the good work it's done in the past, and hope that merit lands them fatter future budgets.
"We're going to tell our story better," he said. "I think if we do that, we then rely upon the process to respond."
The Port of Anchorage also is taking a wait-and-see approach, said former Gov. Bill Sheffield, its director. The city-owned port is in the midst of a $750 to $800 million expansion project that because of its sheer size is almost certain to require federal help. But Sheffield said he's confident Congress would consider additional funding regardless of and Republican earmark moratorium.
"We have heard that earmarks might be included in the next surface transportation bill," Sheffield wrote in an e-mail. "However any earmark or special designation in that bill would be fully vetted by Congress. From that standpoint I don’t foresee any problems for the project. We will continue to work with our delegation, (which) has always been extremely supportive of the Port of Anchorage , and will pursue any and all opportunities as they arise."
Although both Murkowski and Alaska's lone member of the House, Rep. Don Young aren't sure how they'll be able to submit earmarks as Republicans, they still intend to try.
"I hope to figure out a path forward, so that a young state like Alaska can gain the benefits of federal dollars as other states have had in building up their infrastructure," Murkowski said.
Young defied the earlier Republican band and successfully snagged a number of earmarks this year. He "still wants to hear from Alaskan communities and organizations on what their top constituent projects of interest will be," said spokeswoman Meredith Kenny. "We are currently working to figure out the best way for them to get us that information."
Begich said that careful vetting is the only approach to earmarks — he recently met with elected officials in Homer to go over their list, for example, and insisted that the projects the city submits not be solely dependent on federal money.
"I'm not putting anything that's what some would call 'pork,' or are things that are just like, you're doing it for someone who ran into you in the hallway or something like that, the days of the past," Begich said. "My view is, they're community based, they've gone through a process. A lot of these have not only been submitted by their mayors, but voted on by their city councils, vetted through their community councils. So it's a built-up process before it gets to us."
Some Republicans have acknowledged that it may be difficult to avoid some earmarking as they proceed with the next version of a transportation bill that spawned Alaska's now-infamous bridge-to-nowhere. Young is perhaps best known for the $286.4 billion earmark-intensive highway spending bill he oversaw in 2005 as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Packed with earmarks, the legislation also contained $452 million for the Gravina Island and Knik Arm spans that became known nationally as "bridges to nowhere" and came to symbolize the excess of earmarking.
And even the chief proponent of the current earmark ban, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, said that lobbyists are likely to try their best to find a way to wiggle around the voluntary earmark ban.
There are "thousands of earmark lobbyists in Washington who are going to try to figure out how to get around this," he said last week.
But times are changing, said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
"One thing is pretty certain, Don Young is not going to get any earmarks," he said. "No way. This year, the Republicans are in control and they're not going to give him any. He further isolated himself by being a scofflaw last year, and I don't think that'll help him with the Republican conference."
Ellis points out that even without earmarks, there's so much existing federal infrastructure in Alaska -- including military bases -- that plenty of money will automatically head the state's way.
" Alaska 's going to get its share of federal cash," Ellis said. "It's not like the spigot is turning completely off."