Earmarks: They’re back, and Murkowski is using them to steer money home

The underside of the U.S. Capitol dome, as viewed from the Rotunda. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has issued a $230 million wish list of dozens of Alaska projects she’s hoping Congress will pass with the next batch of appropriations bills. 

Her list has big-ticket items: Nearly $28 million to expand the emergency room at the Alaska Native Medical Center and the same amount for a road between Kotzebue and a possible deepwater port at Cape Blossom.

It has small items: $50,000 to the Kodiak Area Native Association to study the health impact of harmful algae blooms.

It has lots of medium-ticket items, too, from clinics to research projects to water system improvements.

Congress may or may not reach a deal on President Biden’s social spending initiative or his infrastructure package, but one way or another, lawmakers have to pass spending bills to keep government funded, and these are the bills Murkowski has peppered with home state projects. 

Steve Ellis (Taxpayers for Common Sense photo)

They’re officially called “congressionally directed spending,” but they look a lot like earmarks, and their return harkens back to the golden age of Alaska earmarks when the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens was on the Appropriations Committee. 

“Certainly, Sen. Stevens used his perch as chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a senior member of the appropriations committee to deliver a lot of federal taxpayer dollars back to Alaska,” said Steve Ellis, president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Earmarking came to a halt a decade ago, thanks to a pair of big scandals and a big bridge — Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere,” which would’ve connected Ketchikan to the island where its airport is located. Taxpayers for Common Sense was among the groups that derided it as pork. The American public seemed to agree, and Republicans banned earmarks in 2010.

Now Democrats have brought earmarks back, with reforms. For one, each lawmaker’s earmark requests is now made public. 

But Ellis said if they wanted to be truly transparent, the leaders of the Appropriations committees would’ve provided the information in a format the public could easily search and organize.

“We wanted to be out of the database making business,” Ellis said. “And they certainly haven’t done that.”

Another big reform Ellis notes is that now earmarks can only go to government entities or nonprofits. That helps address the scandal of Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., who was caught selling earmarks in exchange for bribes. 

“And so they’ve tried to remove that pay-to-play aspect out of earmarks,” Ellis said. “But there’s still the challenge of, are you making decisions based on political muscle rather than policy merit?”

Earmark defenders say they don’t necessarily increase government spending. Congress members use earmarks to carve up the federal pie and send slices home, rather than leave the pie-cutting to government bureaucrats. Some Congress-watchers think earmarks help Congress function.

Molly Reynolds (Brookings photo)

“I am definitely of the mindset it helps more than it hurts,” said Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written books about the inner workings of Congress.

It’s the job of Congress to decide how federal money is spent, Reynolds said, so earmarks are appropriate. And they boost morale. Reynolds notes that rank-and-file members of Congress don’t have as much say as they used to, now that so many bills show up as big omnibus packages that don’t come up through committees. Earmarks, she said, allow members to do good for their districts and give lawmakers a reason to work with each other.

“Any opportunity that members have, any reason they have to come together and build relationships, I think is also good for the institution long term,” she said.

But so far, after a 10-year hiatus, earmarks have had at best limited success in bringing Congress together.

Only 14 Republican senators took the opportunity that Murkowski did to request home state spending projects in the appropriations bills. Alaska U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, like most Republicans, did not submit lists to the Appropriations Committee. 

A Sullivan spokesman said in an email that Sullivan uses other means to make the case for federal investment in Alaska. The email didn’t say whether Sullivan opposes the practice of earmarking. 

On the House side, Alaska Congressman Don Young is a big fan of earmarks. He says when Congress gave them up they essentially handed power over to the executive branch.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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