Politics & Policy

Even in Alaska, Earmarks Are in Trouble

New voters have a new approach to federal spending.

Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller is touting an unusual position in Alaska politics: no earmarks. In a state that still remembers fondly the federal dollars that Republican senator Ted Stevens brought home for sundry projects, it’s a daring stance — and one that crucially differentiates him from Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Democratic candidate Scott McAdams.

“In regards to earmarks, I believe there is a better, more honest way,” Miller says in an e-mail interview. “The problem with earmarks is that they can act as a corrupting influence in Congress.”

Murkowski, on the other hand, proudly touts her pro-earmark position. “The suggestion that Miller and I would have virtually similar voting patterns is just not valid,” she told the Anchorage Press in an interview. “Consider earmarks — he’s signed two pledges to oppose any and all earmarks in the name of reducing federal spending. To suggest as Joe has that somehow or other if we eliminate all earmarks we’ll bring federal spending under control is deceptive to the nth degree.”

And McAdams shares that mindset, with a TV ad that stresses the importance of “getting our fair share again” and shows McAdams’s interest in being the next Stevens by having him wear a Hulk tie, just as Stevens infamously did.

So are Alaskans ready for a senator who won’t seek earmarks? Or is Miller’s position kamikaze-esque?

“There’s been this permanent demographic split in Alaska. You have one portion of voters that have lived there for decades that understand the needs of Alaska when it comes to federal spending,” says GOP strategist Matt Moon. “You have another portion of voters, though, who are new voters . . . and they’re the ones who don’t necessarily understand the . . . federal largesse in Alaska.”

Moon thinks those voters are propelling Miller — and that the tea-party, small-government fever that’s swept through the electorate this year has created a unique situation that’s allowed an anti-earmark candidate to advance so far.

Carl Shepro, a political-science professor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, argues that Alaskans aren’t upset about the earmark status quo. “Earmarks are a big part of our dependence, so in general you would find Alaskans are not opposed to them,” he says.

But what isn’t being discussed in this election as much is how, for better or worse, the Stevens earmark days are over. Bringing in the amounts Stevens did — in 2008, Alaska secured $346 million in earmarks ($506 per capita, the most in the nation) — requires the kind of seniority Stevens had on the Appropriations Committee. Just compare 2008’s earmark take with 2010’s measly $87 million. Murkowski may have been in the Senate, and as she’s made clear, she has no objections to earmarks, but she doesn’t yet have the clout to bring home the kind of pork Stevens could. McAdams, if elected, would have even less pull as a new senator.

In addition, while earmarks may inspire heated political debates, they hardly constitute the bulk of federal dollars the state receives. “Less than 1 percent of the federal dollars that come to Alaska come through earmarks,” says Miller.

Talking to voters in Kodiak, Alaska, last week, Miller also argued that Congress’s attitude to earmarks was fundamentally shifting. “The era of earmarks is over, whether we like it or not,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you send to the Congress. . . . What you’re seeing is the recognition that the rate of federal debt can’t continue.”

It’s not clear that this recognition is shared by Alaska voters. But if it is, and if they choose Miller to represent them in the Senate, it’s possible that the bridge-to-nowhere state may just lay the groundwork for a Congress that ends wasteful earmark spending.

— Katrina Trinko  writes for National Review Online’s Battle ’10 blog.

Katrina TrinkoKatrina Trinko is a political reporter for National Review. Trinko is also a member of USA TODAY’S Board of Contributors, and her work has been published in various media outlets ...

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