The waning power of Alaskan lawmakers

The energy-backed powerhouses once wielded outsized influence in Congress. That’s changing.

  • Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, hold a news conference about Alaska’s energy future at the Capitol last January, voicing opposition to the Obama administration’s proposal to protect millions of acres in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil exploration and drilling.

    AP Photo/ J. Scott Applewhite

In 2004, as a sweeping energy bill languished in Congress, the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, successfully pushed through his own pet project by attaching it to another bill that was sure to pass. Incentives to build a 1,400-mile pipeline to carry natural gas from Prudhoe Bay to the Lower 48 states became part of a bill to fund military construction. The legislation created a new agency dedicated to building that one pipeline, eased permitting requirements and provided up to $18 billion in loan guarantees.

It was vintage Stevens, then one of the Senate’s most powerful members. At the time, he was both president pro tempore — third in line to be U.S. president — and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. For decades, thanks largely to Stevens and others (including Frank Murkowski), Alaska’s congressional delegation wielded extraordinary power. Those days are over, largely because the rules have changed, and also because Alaskans hold sway only as long as their petroleum does.

“There’s no question that the oil industry is the wealthiest industry in the history of the planet,” says Chris Miller, an energy lobbyist who was a longtime Hill staffer for Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. “When its interests line up with members, that’s a very powerful combination.” The industry relied on Stevens to use his leverage to advance its priorities, such as creating exemptions from the Clean Water Act and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; in exchange, the senator could  “call on the political power of the petroleum industry to do things on his behalf.”

Starting in the later 2000s, however, the natural gas boom in the Lower 48 made Stevens’ pipeline unexpectedly irrelevant.  And today, the surge in domestic oil production, led by North Dakota and Texas, has further eroded Alaska’s status as a crude superpower. In fact, the state’s production is plummeting, and with it, its influence in D.C.

But Alaska’s heft in Washington had also been due to Stevens’ particular legislative might, as well as to congressional rules that enabled senior members with the right political skills to amass enormous authority. Stevens is gone; so, too, are the rules that helped him build his power.

“Ted Stevens could work miracles, not only for Alaska, but for other things as well,” says former Louisiana Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, a Democrat who chaired the Energy Committee prior to Frank Murkowski. As chairman of the appropriations committee, Stevens had control over earmarks, the provisions in appropriations bills that provide funding for specific projects or companies. This allowed Stevens to create things like the Denali Commission, which spent more than $1 billion to build electricity generation, hospitals, ports and other infrastructure in remote parts of Alaska. (After Stevens lost a re-election bid in a cloud of indictments, funding for the agency plunged by 90 percent.)

Alaska’s present-day representatives — Lisa Murkowski included — will never match Stevens’ clout. (The state’s other senator, Dan Sullivan, is a freshman who has yet to make much of a mark.) Changes in the rules that govern both the Senate and the House have practically done away with earmarks, and Republicans have even put term limits on chairmanships. In recent years, partisan gridlock has made it difficult for even the most skillful and powerful senators to pass legislation. Murkowski has big ambitions and a powerful job, as chairman of the Energy Committee. But while her committee adopted a bipartisan energy bill, it lacks key provisions she wants most for Alaska, such as an increase in the revenue states get from off-shore drilling and an end to a ban on crude exports.

Another factor limiting Alaska’s influence is its waning role as an energy provider. Alaska’s concerns were still front and center when Congress drafted the last energy bill in 2005. These days, however, “you just don’t see the same level of focus about Alaska and its resource development,” says Greg Dodson, a former Democratic Hill staffer and  vice president for energy policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

Now, Alaska’s star may be rising again, but not because of its delegation or its crude. President Barack Obama’s recent visit was so important to Gov. Bill Walker, a Republican turned Independent, that he flew to Washington, D.C., so that he could accompany Obama to Alaska on Air Force One. In Alaska, the president danced a traditional Yup’ik dance with schoolchildren and chatted about salmon fishing in Bristol Bay, which Obama has helped protect from offshore drilling and a massive copper mine. The president also met with tribes. He listened, and then offered a lifeline to villages hit by effects of climate change, such as sea-level rise, storm surge and erosion. He even pledged to revive Stevens’ Denali Commission, for a purpose Stevens most likely never imagined: turning it into the lead federal agency for helping move those villages to safer ground.

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