POLITICS

Message from Alaska: Our disaster relief isn’t ‘pork’

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Byron York,Alaska

Conservatives have denounced some of the spending inserted into the $60 billion Hurricane Sandy relief bill that Speaker John Boehner stopped in the House over New Year’s. “They had the opportunity to have a $27 billion to $30 billion dollar legit relief package,” Republican Rep. Darrell Issa said on Fox News this week.  But lawmakers “packed it with pork, then dared us not to vote on it.  If we’re going to provide relief, we can’t allow it to be doubled with unrelated pork no matter where the relief is.”

“Look at some of what was in the $60 billion bill,” the Wall Street Journal editorial page wrote Thursday. “$150 million for Alaskan fisheries; $2 million for roof repair at the Smithsonian in Washington; and about $17 billion for liberal activists under the guise of ‘community development’ funds and so-called social service grants.”  The Sandy relief bill, the Journal concluded, “has become cover for Congress to revive earmarks and the pork machine.”

Unhappy with the bill, and stung by criticism of the spending at a time when Republicans had just lost the fiscal cliff tax fight and were gearing up for battle over the debt ceiling, Boehner separated the bill into two parts.  The first, a $9.7 billion flood insurance measure, was approved by the House Friday.  The rest of the $60 billion measure will come up for House consideration later this month.

It’s unclear what will happen to the “pork” in the bill.  But after I appeared in a Fox News segment on Sandy relief Friday morning, I got a note from Kip Knudson, who is Director of State-Federal Relations for the State of Alaska and its Republican governor, Sean Parnell.

“Even though referred to as a ‘Sandy’ bill, we look at the vehicle as a ‘disaster’ bill,” Knudson wrote.  “The Alaska fish disaster (declared in September by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce) is impacting Alaskans similarly to storm-impacted residents of NY/NJ/CT, and the longer we wait, the more desperate those Americans become.”

It’s unlikely that many Americans in the Lower 48 know about it, but the Alaskan salmon industry — a significant part of the state’s economy — has been struck by a slow-moving disaster for several years now.  Sources of salmon that even in the mid-2000s yielded hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish are now yielding next to nothing.  Nobody quite agrees on what is causing the problem, but as Knudson noted, in September the Commerce Department issued what is called a resource disaster designation covering parts of the Alaskan salmon industry, making it eligible for federal relief funds.

That’s where the Hurricane Sandy bill comes in.  Noting that much of what Congress does is contained in omnibus, rather than stand-alone, bills, Knudson says the concept behind what became the Sandy bills in the House and Senate did not involve any intention to apply specifically to northeastern hurricane damage.  “The original title of HR 1 was, ‘Making appropriations for the Department of Defense and the other departments and agencies of the Government for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2011, and for other purposes,’” Knudson writes.  “That bill was used to shorten the procedural schedule, and the title of the Senate-passed version of HR 1 was ‘An act making appropriations for disaster relief for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2013, and for other purposes.’  Not even Sandy aid was germane to the first title, but all kinds of disaster aid is germane in the second title, in my mind.”

But now many of the lawmakers Knudson calls “my conservative allies” have denounced the Alaska spending as “pork,” and that part of the Sandy bill is on hold in the House at least until mid-January.  And that has left Alaskans wondering when the fish industry relief — now cast as wasteful spending in many minds — will make it through Congress at all.

“You tell me how likely, or how quickly, Congress will act on a stand-alone fish disaster bill,” says Knudson.  “And now that all of my conservative friends have called out the fish disaster appropriation as ‘pork,’ the prognosis has gotten much worse.”

None of this is to say whether it is a good thing or a bad thing for Congress to spend $150 million on the salmon industry in Alaska.  In any event, that’s a different question from whether it was a good idea for Congress to include Alaskan fisheries relief in a bill mostly directed to the damage done by Hurricane Sandy thousands of miles from the Yukon River.  But it is to say there is a complicated story behind the story.

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