Coburn, McCain Take on Diminished Clout of Alaska, Hawaii

Posted March 13, 2013 at 6:28pm

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma found no shortage of programs to disagree with in the stopgap appropriations bill being debated on the Senate floor that would fund the government for the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year.

But this is the first time that McCain enters the spending battle without either of his familiar sparring partners from noncontiguous states.

The last debate on a continuing resolution was in September 2012, before the passing of Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii. Inouye and his friend Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, used to use their clout as senior appropriators to guard home-state interests.

Stevens left the Senate after losing his re-election bid to Democratic Sen. Mark Begich in 2008 under an ethics investigation cloud. Stevens died in August 2010. Begich’s seatmate, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, lost her seat at the Senate GOP leadership table when she was defeated in her GOP primary in 2010, even though she went on to win as a write-in in the general election. Meanwhile, Inouye died in December following a battle with respiratory complications, a month before his longtime colleague Sen. Daniel Akaka retired.

The new players in the Alaska and Hawaii delegations pledge to fight on and express optimism that they will prevail, but given the influence of seniority in the chamber, the odds of success in batting back challenges from the likes of McCain and others remain to be seen.

Both Begich and Murkowski sit on the Senate Appropriations panel, but they have not yet achieved anything near the seniority or influence Stevens had. Neither newly elected Sen. Mazie K. Hirono nor appointed Sen. Brian Schatz — both Hawaii Democrats — serve on Appropriations.

Asked why he and Coburn referenced specific programs in the two newest states on what they called a “preliminary, partial list of questionable spending,” McCain did not mince words.

“It’s one of the great scandals that there is,” McCain told CQ Roll Call, connecting the programs targeting Alaska and Hawaii to the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska that was pursued through the earmarking process. McCain and his allies, including Coburn, say that continuing some provisions in the catchall spending bill should be considered akin to earmarks, though there is a formal moratorium on the practice of congressionally directed spending.

The two senators criticized what they derided as overpayments under Pentagon contracts with entities owned by Native Hawaiians and Agriculture Department Rural Development money for improving electric delivery in places with extremely high energy costs. According to the Rural Development agency, some of that money has gone specifically to Alaska’s Denali Commission, a federal-state development agency established at the behest of Stevens. “Now we’re in sequestration, we have a bill that would give … companies an additional 5 percent, $15 million,” McCain said. “It’s disgraceful, and it’s been going on for years: $10 million for the USDA high energy cost grants program that are earmarks to subsidize the electricity bills in Alaska and Hawaii?”

Schatz, who was appointed after Inouye’s death, said that he and others were prepared to continue to fight against eliminating the programs.

“This has been a long-standing disagreement with — with my friend Sen. McCain and the Hawaii delegation, and I have no doubt that he holds these beliefs sincerely, but I think he’s got this one wrong,” Schatz said.

“Many of our most reliable defense contractors depend on these Native Hawaiian companies to — to improve our defense capability at the headquarters of the Pacific Command and throughout the state of Hawaii,” Schatz said. “The Department of Defense has confirmed … that they find these programs to be valuable, and we’re confident that we’ll be able to overcome these obstacles.”

Begich similarly said that he was prepared to fight against amendments to curtail funding for programs benefitting his home state, many of which Stevens had defended long before him. He pointed to McCain’s long-standing criticism of the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Business Development program, which helps small businesses including Alaska Native corporations gain access to federal contracting opportunities.

“Sen. McCain … continues to lack total understanding of the program. I’ve been in many meetings where I’ve had to explain it to him,” Begich said. “8(a)’s been creating incredible economic opportunity, across this country, not just in Alaska but across this country for employment.”

Begich cited scholarships and other education programs that the companies involved finance in rural Alaska.

Begich said “we always feel positive about our opportunities” to prevail over efforts to slash the SBA programs.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, who succeeded Inouye as chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, said the feud over treatment of Hawaiian defense contractors is nothing new.

“This is a long-running debate between Coburn, Inouye, Stevens, which I’m sure is going to continue … as to whether minority contractors should include Native Hawaiians and Native Alaskans, and you can understand why the two of them wanted it — them to be included,” the Illinois Democrat said. “And you know, McCain has a different point of view.”

The Native Hawaiian provision has been a regular feature of Pentagon spending bills for more than a decade, with each bill since fiscal 2001 containing the language except for fiscal 2004, a Democratic aide explained. During the entirety of that time, either Inouye or Stevens served as the top Defense appropriator, depending on which party controlled the chamber.

“There’s nothing sinister or hidden about this,” Durbin added.