Alaska editorial: Gender representation in the U.S. Senate

Posted: Tuesday, January 11, 2005

This editorial appeared in Wednesday's Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Congratulations to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who on Tuesday was sworn in by Vice President Dick Cheney to a full term in the Senate. She is the first Alaska-born senator to represent the state in the chamber.

And, as a news release from her office on Tuesday proclaimed, she is the "first woman elected in her own right to Alaska statewide office." Now, anyone about to launch from a chair to blurt "But what about Fran Ulmer!" should sit down. The former lieutenant governor was elected as part of a ticket headed by Tony Knowles; people vote for the top of the ticket, not the bottom.

Some people tire of hearing about firsts - it seems so many people are seeking to be the first at something or other nowadays - but firsts for women in elective office are often worth noting, especially at the state and national levels where women hold a disproportionately smaller number of offices than do men.

So how is the gender lineup in new Senate in the 109th Congress, which convened for the first time on Tuesday? Unchanged from the 108th Congress. Sen. Murkowski finds herself as one of 14 women senators, and while her Republican Party affiliation puts her in the controlling majority, she's in the clear minority among the Senate's women, nine of whom are Democrats.

Still, having 14 women senators is a significant advance.

It was only 82 years ago that the Senate received its first female senator, Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia - appointed, by the way. At age 87, she was sworn in on Nov. 21, 1922, and served just 24 hours in what the Senate Historical Office describes as a "largely symbolic Senate service (that) capped a long career in Georgia politics and journalism."

The Senate didn't have its first elected woman senator until 10 years later, when Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas was elected in 1932 - after being appointed a year earlier to fill a vacancy created by the death of her husband, Sen. Thaddeus Caraway. She went on to serve two full terms.

The U.S. Senate is an illustrious body, but to date just 33 women have served within its walls, with just under half of those in office today. Clearly, women have a greater chance of winning a Senate seat in this era than they had in the past.

Nonetheless, making inroads in the Senate, dominated by men since its creation more than two centuries ago, has long proved an arduous task for women. The nation would be better served if this weren't the case.

Constitutional gimmicks aren't fiscal responsibility

This editorial appeared in Wednesday's Anchorage Daily News:

M any Alaska lawmakers, especially in the Senate majority, would like Alaskans to believe that a long-term fiscal plan has to start with a constitutional spending limit. Heading into this month's legislative session, Sen. Fred Dyson has prefiled a measure to impose one.

Wait: Don't we already have a spending limit?

In fact, we do. Passed in 1981, at the height of the oil boom, the constitutional spending limit has never limited a single penny of state spending. The cap was set at $2.5 billion, with a host of exclusions, and indexed for inflation and population growth. Today the supposed limit on state spending is about $6.8 billion, according to the state Office of Management and Budget.

State spending has never come close to hitting that ceiling. The supply of easy spending money steadily shrank, thanks to the oil price crash of the 1980s and a 50 percent drop in Alaska's oil production. Meanwhile population growth and inflation steadily pushed up the spending cap.

Alaska's spending "limit" has another oddball feature. The 1981 amendment says one-third of the spending limit "shall be reserved for capital projects and loan appropriations." State budgets have never come close to following that requirement. In the past two years, the capital project share of the spending that's supposedly "limited" hasn't topped even 4 percent. Every budget in the past 20 years has violated the spirit, if not the letter, of this constitutional edict. (In 1983, the attorney general conveniently opined that the one-third capital requirement is only triggered when spending hits the cap.)

What happened with the spending limit is a reminder of how inferior an artificial constitutional gimmick is to actual fiscal responsibility.

Here's another reminder: Lawmakers owe billions of dollars to the Constitutional Budget Reserve and show no inclination to pay it back.

Over the years, they've taken $5 billion from the CBR, which was built with huge settlements of tax and royalty disputes with Alaska's major oil companies. The reserve is supposed to stabilize state spending from wild gyrations in oil revenues. Withdrawals in bad years are supposed to be repaid by deposits in good years. But the odds lawmakers will repay their multibillion debt to the budget reserve are about the same as finding Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa alive.

When Alaskans hear legislators talk about spending limits, balanced budget amendments or tax caps, just remember: These folks have tried gimmicks like that before, and they haven't helped.

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