ANCHORAGE — Like all members of Congress, Sen. Dan Sullivan has a long list of to-dos. Tops on that list right now is an issue he’s outwardly excited about tackling nearly as soon as the new Congress gavels in Jan. 3.
“The economy, the economy, the economy,” he said.
A strident conservative, Sullivan noted in a Dec. 20 interview with the Alaska Journal of Commerce that he has spent the entirety of his career in public office — from being Alaska’s attorney general and Natural Resources commissioner under Republican governors to his current seat as the state’s junior U.S. senator — pushing back against President Barack Obama’s domestic policies that he says put environmental interest groups ahead of the nation’s economy.
“This administration has been overseeing the weakest economic recovery, maybe in U.S. history, from a major recession,” Sullivan said.
He generally refers to Obama’s two-term presidency as the “lost decade of economic growth.”
“All I know is to fight (the Obama administration) and have to deal with federal government agencies that don’t want to help us achieve our full potential in terms of economic and resource development opportunities. I’m very hopeful that’s going to start to change,” Sullivan said.
Investing in infrastructure is one of the primary ways he said the country could get back to annual economic growth at least back to historical norms of nearly 4 percent. U.S. GDP has been below 3 percent since 2006, according to the World Bank.
“We need to cut spending but not on infrastructure,” Sullivan said. “Infrastructure is a form of good (spending) because it unleashes the private sector and we’re an infrastructure poor state.”
Infrastructure in an economic sense usually refers to roads, bridges and airports — those things that not only spur construction activity but also make transporting goods faster, cheaper and safer.
However, in Alaska, the need goes further and was partly addressed in the latest federal water spending bill. The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation, or WIIN, Act, signed by the president Dec. 16, touches Alaska on several positive fronts, according to Sullivan.
First, it authorizes $300 million in federal grants through 2021 for the roughly 30 rural communities in the state that still lack running water and sewer systems. The original Senate bill had nearly $1.5 billion to fund the full need, Sullivan said, but since the House bill had nothing the negotiated amount ended up being much less.
State funding for the effort to get Alaskans off “honey buckets” has followed the overall decline in the state budget.
In addition to funding standard Army Corps of Engineers annual maintenance of Alaska’s ports and harbors as federal water bills usually do, the WIIN Act also directs the Army to conduct a feasibility study for a Defense-directed Arctic deep-draft port.
The Corps of Engineers paused its study of a deepwater port near Nome in 2015 after Shell nixed its long-term offshore oil and gas exploration plan in the Chukchi Sea.
A directive in the legislation to have the Corps include the strategic benefits of a large Arctic port from the secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security should help move the project along because they are “can-do actors” with “a serious budget,” Sullivan described.
Getting to building infrastructure effectively will also require major regulatory overhaul on the federal level, according to Sullivan, an issue he and President-elect Donald Trump are both keen on.
The senator said the incoming president was very interested in the Red Tape Act that Sullivan submitted last year during a phone call between the two. The bill would require the agencies regulate development projects to sunset a regulation each time a new one is promulgated. Trump might want to up the ante.
“(It’s) one in-one out. He’s like, ‘No Dan, it’s one in-two out.’ I’m like, ‘Alright good, one in-two out,’” Sullivan said, recalling the conversation. “He said, ‘Send me the bill; I want to work with you guys on this.’”
On those lines, the Rebuild America Now Act should be submitted early in the next Congress, according to Sullivan.
“We’re looking like we’re going to have a federal government that’s much more of a partner in terms of focusing on the economy and that means resource development,” he said.
Sullivan cited the state’s recent North Slope oil and gas lease sale, which drew a very large number of bids totaling $36 million despite low oil prices, as a sign of industry’s economic optimism.
When it comes to filling Trump’s cabinet, the most immediate task when Congress resumes, Sullivan said Senate Democrats will likely be faced with a bit of turnabout.
Retiring Nevada Democrat Sen. Harry Reid pushed new parliamentary rules as the Majority Leader through the Senate in 2013 that “nuked” the filibuster for most appointment confirmations, meaning presidential appointees need only 51 votes instead of the former 60.
“There’s no way a guy like Attorney General (Scott) Pruitt of Oklahoma would be able to get confirmed with 60 of us senators right now,” Sullivan said.
Pruitt, an oil development advocate, is Trump’s pick for Environmental Protection Agency administrator and there will be 52 Republicans in the next Senate.
Sullivan has met “a few” of Trump’s nominees, but said the vetting process will begin in earnest when Congress resumes Jan. 3.
A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sullivan said the state’s congressional delegation as a whole has made significant progress in getting the key players at every level in Washington, D.C., to recognize Alaska’s strategic importance to national defense.
With Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks preparing for the long-anticipated arrival of two squadrons of F-35 fighters adding to the F-22s already at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska has become “the hub of air combat power for the Asia-Pacific,” he said.
“With the F-35s we’re going to have over 100 fifth-generation fighters in Alaska. There’s no place in the world that’s got that,” Sullivan said.
Further, the nation’s missile defense system is centered at Fort Greely in Delta and rapid-response combat troops can be deployed anywhere in the world within hours, Sullivan noted.
The Defense spending bill passed earlier this year calls for adding 16,000 troops, a big positive for Sullivan as well, to stem the 40,000-troop drawdown that has occurred during the Obama administration.
He calls increasing the military presence in Alaska “a sweet spot issue” because it benefits both the state and the country as a whole.
Finally, Sullivan said he would like to see the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals — which is based in San Francisco and hears federal cases pertaining to Alaska — split.
That’s because the 9th Circuit is simply too big, he contends.
The court with 29 judgeships hears federal appeals from 15 District Courts in nine Western states and that unavoidably leads to an unbearable workload for the judges and in-turn the slowest appeals court in country, said Sullivan, who also worked as a law clerk on the 9th Circuit.
“A lot of the opinions are written by the 23-year-old law clerk who just got out of law school, which is a travesty,” he said.
Splitting the 9th Circuit would speed rulings and could, in his opinion, improve outcomes for Alaska cases pertaining to resource development issues if they were no longer heard by often-liberal judges from California.
A cohort of Arizona Republicans called for the state to be pulled from the 9th Circuit earlier this year for largely the same reasons.
• Elwood Brehmer is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce and can be reached at email@example.com.