Earmarks: Congress mulls return of practice that enriched Alaska

Ted Stevens in 2005

Ted Stevens in 2005 (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In Sen. Ted Stevens’ day, Alaska thrived on earmarks, the congressional practice of directing federal dollars to home-state projects. Lawmakers agreed in 2011 to end the tradition, in response to public outrage over projects such as Alaska’s so-called “bridge to nowhere.”

To this day, nearly every account of alleged excess features as Exhibit A the bridge that would’ve connected Ketchikan to its island airport.  But now, there’s serious talk in Washington of bringing back the earmark.

“I have been a fan of earmarks since I got here the first day,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters at the Capitol last week. ”Keep in mind that’s what the country has done for more than 200 years.”

Democrats aren’t united on this. President Obama opposes earmarks. Reid says he doesn’t care.

“I disagree … with Obama on earmarks,” Reid said. “He’s wrong.”

Among Republicans, the issue is also divisive. GOP senators debated it during a policy meeting last week. Opponents say earmarks are wasteful, while advocates say they may be the grease needed to break Congressional deadlock. Alaska’s congressional delegation, though, is solidly pro-earmark,  with both senators on the Appropriations Committee, where most of the earmarking used to happen.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski says the stereotype is that earmarks fund obscure projects in the dark of night. More typically, she says, a city council passes a resolution supporting a project and asks for her help.

“And they come to us, and we put it on our Web site,” she said. “And then people say ‘well surely that’s something that you would advocate as their representative back here in Washington, D.C.’ But did you know that’s called an earmark?”

At least, it is if the lawmaker writes it into a bill. Now, Congress just sends money to the government agencies, and they decide what projects to spend it on. So lawmakers who want to press for a project routinely contact agency chiefs to make their case. Murkowski says it amounts to earmarking in secret: ”When you go through the back door, that’s, I believe, taking you back to the days of the deal done in the dark of the night in the smoke-filled room.”

There are other  ways around the ban. A New York congressman, for instance, didn’t direct any money to a ladder manufacturer in his district, but in a defense bill last week, he essentially orders the Army to brief Congress on the benefits of “carbon fiber ladders.”

Sen. Mark Begich says earmarking doesn’t bust the budget. It only directs money within a budget.

“You know, we’re closest to the people in a lot of ways and understanding the needs, and I think to have us as part of the process is important, and earmarks allow the opportunity to do that,” he said.

Alaska Congressman Don Young, in effect, made earmarking a household word by setting aside big money for the Ketchikan bridge a decade ago. He says the Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse, and Congress should use it.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with my party,” he said in an interview late last year.  ”I frankly think they had their head in the sand, when they said ‘We can’t have earmarks. We have to balance the budget.’ We transferred that power to the president.”

But Speaker of the House John Boehner told Fox News this week, as long as he’s in charge, the ban stays.

“I started this effort in 2006, to get rid of earmarks,” the Ohio Republican said. “We are not going back to the nonsense that went on before then.”

So far, Washington’s inertia seems to be in Boehner’s favor on this one.

Recent headlines

  • An Alaska Airlines plane at Juneau International Airport.

    Alaska Airlines pilots plan picket over lack of compensation

    Alaska Airlines pilots have reached a breaking point in negotiations with the company, and now have plans to picket outside Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. The pilots plan to picket starting at 1 p.m. Monday outside the airport in Anchorage.
  • Obadiah Jenkins tries to help Daniel Hartung pull himself from Six-Mile Creek in Hope. (Photo courtesy James Bennett)

    Homer resident saves kayaker’s life on Six-Mile Creek

    Jenkins was taking a practice run through the class four rapids when a bystander filming the event, noticed another participant, Daniel Hartung, 64, of Indian Valley, flipped out of his kayak and became pinned under a log.
  • Vigor Alaska Shipyard Development director Doug Ward talks with Marine Transportation advisory board member Greg Wakefield inside the not-quite-finished Alaska Class ferry Tazlina. (Photo by Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

    Alaska class ferry Tazlina on track at Ketchikan shipyard

    The Tazlina is the first of two new Alaska Class ferries that the Ketchikan Vigor Alaska shipyard is building for the state. Its two halves are complete and welded together, and shipyard workers are busy getting interior spaces done.
  • The Matanuska sits in drydock for maintenance.

    Fall-winter-spring ferry bookings begin

    The Alaska Marine Highway is taking reservations for October through April sailings. The schedule changed so the Matanuska can get new engines.
X