Legislative Lowdown: Alaska's Senators Seek Special Treatment

Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R.-Okla.) unsuccessful attempt to shift almost half a billion taxpayer dollars from two trivial Alaska bridges to the reconstruction of the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge damaged in Hurricane Katrina caused Alaska’s senators to rage against the perceived inequity of Coburn’s proposal.

“This is the first time I have seen any attempt by any senator to treat my state in a way differently from any other state,” said a hyperventilating Sen. Ted Stevens (R.-Alaska), who has served for 37 years. His junior partner, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R.), found it “very difficult to stand here as an Alaskan and not take personally” a proposal “that is going to isolate us.”

That was October 20.

Barely two weeks later, a budget bill that would, on balance, impose modest cuts to out-of-control entitlement programs such as Medicaid reached the Senate floor, the first such effort in nearly a decade. Overall, the Medicaid portion of this lengthy bill includes a number of minor changes that, altogether, would reduce federal Medicaid spending by $4.3 billion over the next five years. But buried deep within these arcane and technical changes lies a provision that treats Alaska “differently from any other state.” This time, however, the provision isolating Alaska originated from the two Alaskans themselves.

How could this happen? Senate leaders proposed assisting the victims of Hurricane Katrina by having Uncle Sam assume 100% of the health costs incurred by Medicaid-eligible individuals who lived in the affected areas. Another Katrina-related provision revised Medicaid’s complex payment formula to steer even more funds to the affected Gulf Coast states. Of course, there are far better ways to deliver this assistance, but that’s not the issue at hand.

Apparently, the Alaskan duo, resenting this special treatment for Katrina victims, quietly convinced the Senate Finance Committee to insert a provision adding a similar upward adjustment in the Medicaid payment to their beleaguered state. So, atop the half billion in gas tax revenues that will be spent on those two bridges, add another $130 million in Medicaid dollars that would again isolate Alaska. 

Alaskan residents, who shoulder a notoriously light tax burden (no income or sales tax, for example), recently received their shares of the $510 million from Alaska’s Permanent Fund. The fund manages $31 billion in revenues derived from oil production on the North Slope and sends dividend checks annually to each Alaskan resident. This year’s dividend was a cool $845.76.

Little wonder, then, that the Anchorage Daily News recently lamented: “The message much of the rest of the country is getting about Alaska is one of gluttony at the federal trough.”

Budget Smoke and Mirrors

In fashioning these budget reconciliation bills, congressional leaders always seem to engage in various forms of budgetary chicanery. Sadly, this reconciliation bill is no exception.

Among the most egregious forms of chicanery in the Senate’s bill is the Medicare provision that would shift $5.2 billion in outlays from 2006 to 2007 by temporarily halting payments to Medicare providers during the last six business days of September 2006. Shifting payment dates from one fiscal year to another and back-loading spending reductions to the distant future is a time-honored way for big spenders to create the false illusion of fiscal austerity. This one-week payment holiday fits anyone’s definition of a budget trick. Remarkably, the Senate version of budget reconciliation actually increases projected spending on Medicare by $2 billion through 2008.

Alito and Senate Moderates

The nomination of Appeals Judge Samuel Alito to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor elicited predictable howls from the Senate’s liberal lions. Sen. Teddy Kennedy (D.-Mass.) thundered that Alito would threaten “decades of American progress in safeguarding our fundamental rights and liberties.” Yawn.

Less noticed was the more respectful reaction Alito received from moderate Senate Democrats. Here are some examples:

  • Sen. Ben Nelson (D.-Neb.): “At this point in time, I have a comfort level I’m satisfied with.” (For more Nelson reaction, see Page 3.)
  • Sen. Tim Johnson (D.-S.D.): “There is no doubt that Judge Alito is a knowledgeable, able individual. … [I]t would appear his 15 years on the bench and his legal skills are at a high level.”
  • Sen. Mark Pryor (D.-Ark.): “I start with the presumption that there are no extraordinary circumstances [justifying a filibuster].”

Conservatives, acutely aware that this is a perilous time for conservatism in  Washington, hope Alito’s nomination will energize the despondent conservative base and generate momentum on other pressing issues.