WASHINGTON — As Congress approaches a December 16 deadline to fund the government, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is pushing for nearly $500 million for Alaska projects as one of the few Republican senators to accept the assignments.
After a 10-year hiatus, congressionally directed spending, commonly called appropriations, returned to Capitol Hill in 2021. Members of Congress could reapply for funds during the budget process for government or nonprofit projects in their district. Murkowski, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is advocating for $491 million for Alaska projects for FY 23, more than double his request for $230 million for FY 22.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., included Murkowski’s requests in a proposed bill released in July, and they are currently being negotiated with the House. They include more than 130 projects for communities in Alaska, ranging from $17,000 to support child care facility improvements at a social service provider in Matanuska-Susitna Borough to $99 million to fund a fitness center annex in Fort Wainwright.
“This is something that we work on very aggressively as a team here in the office, trying to work with communities to identify what their priorities are and have those reflected in the allocations process,” Murkowski said in an interview earlier this year. month.
Alaska’s federal legislators have a long history with appropriations: They were a defining part of the legacies of the late Republican Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young. Among the allies, they earned a reputation for “bringing home the bacon,” and among the enemies they were called names like the “king of the pig.” Young’s $230 million appropriation for what opponents called the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Ketchikan, a project that was later canceled, has become something of a legend in Congress.
“Alaskan senators and representatives have always tried to use their power as legislators to do good for Alaska,” said Kevin Kosar, an appropriations expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank.
In 2011, appropriations were banned by Congress due to corruption issues after several appropriations-related ethics scandals. A Democratic-controlled Congress resurrected the practice a decade later, vowing to improve transparency by requiring members of Congress to publish their requests and certify in writing that they will not benefit financially from the projects. They also instituted a cap so allocated projects can only account for 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 this month’s interview He said the appropriations are a key tool for members of Congress to direct money to their constituents instead of letting federal agencies control the funds.
“I am someone who strongly believes that it is the prerogative of Congress to take the role of appropriations seriously instead of ceding 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, let the agency decide.’ ”
She said members of Congress have intimate knowledge of their districts, which puts them in a good position to dole out federal dollars.
“Most of the people who work in these agencies have no idea what Kotzebue’s needs are, they don’t understand what it means to be in a community that isn’t connected by road, and what it means to be in a community where you get your fuel twice a year by barge,” Murkowski said.
Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan has a different philosophy.
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Sullivan is one of 34 Republican senators who did not make any appropriations requests in FY 23. Nine of the 16 Republican senators who requested appropriations are on the Appropriations Committee, like Murkowski.
Sullivan’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story. A Sullivan spokesperson told Alaska Public Media last year that the senator uses other means to defend federal investment in Alaska.
Kosar said lawmakers on both sides of the issue are listening to the political optics of the appropriations.
“Lawmakers read their constituents differently,” Kosar said. “Lawmakers look at their wish-to-please voters and say, ‘Yeah, these people will like that you’re putting money into a new water treatment plant, or they’ll like that you’re putting money into giving police new tools to reduce violence.’ ”
“Other members say, ‘No, my voters are going to see that as pig, and I’m going to get elected in the primary for pushing pig,’” Kosar said. “So they don’t support that kind of thing.”
Murkowski said he felt additional pressure to release appropriated funds for Alaska projects this year because no requests were made in the House. Young died in March, just weeks before her appropriation requests were due, and Alaska Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola was elected well past the deadline.
“When he passed away suddenly and I wasn’t there to advocate for anyone, it 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 Speaker Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., to push Murkowski’s applications forward in the final spending package.
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Reporter Riley Rogerson is a full-time DNA reporter based in Washington, DC. Her position is supported by Report for America, which works to fill the gaps in reporting coverage across the United States and place a new generation of journalists in community news organizations around the world. country. Report for America, funded by public and private donors, covers up to 50% of a reporter’s salary. It’s up to the Anchorage Daily News to find the other half, through local community donors, benefactors, grants or other fundraising activities.
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