The Delegation: Issue 01
Working on Willow, Disaster Relief, Fish Fish Fish
This is where the fun begins
If you're reading this and somehow forgot what exactly it is or why you're here, let me get you up to speed. You've reached THE DELEGATION — a newsletter focused on the work of Alaska's Congressional Delegation — and you're very likely here because you set aside 15 seconds of your day and subscribed. Thank you for signing up!
If you haven't caught on by now, I'm Zack Brown (that's my face up there in the newsletter banner — hi, mom!). I'm a thirty-something political hound based in Washington, D.C. I've worked on campaigns and Capitol Hill and continue to do some consulting on the side. You might be wondering why I'm launching a newsletter covering three individuals' work in a 535-member legislative body. For the last few years, I served as the late Congressman Don Young's communications director and was the final person to hold that position when he passed away. It was an incredible ride that introduced me to everything Alaska, including its political landscape. It was also a great opportunity for me to reconnect with my Alaskan family in Kenai and Chugiak.
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There were many lessons to be learned at my desk in Congressman Young's office, but one frustration that constantly reared its head was the sheer amount of work that the Alaska Delegation and staff do that flies under the radar. I'll admit, not everything is worthy of a front-page headline, and certainly, members of the Alaska press corps only have a limited amount of bandwidth. Having moved on from Capitol Hill, I was left wondering how I could have an impact in a new and different way. I wracked my brain to land on a subject I had enough expertise in that I could turn into an actual newsletter, and it hit me: if there's one area of subject matter I know like the back of my hand, it's the Alaska Delegation and how they work in Congress. So that's how we got here, with me on one side of the screen writing this stuff, and you on the other side [hopefully] enjoying a good read and learning more about the goings on of Senators Murkowski and Sullivan and Congresswoman Peltola.
With that, let's jump in and see what the Alaska Delegation has been up to this week.
Willow they or won't they?
If there's one policy area that's long-guided the work of Alaska's Delegation over the decades, it's resource development. When we talk about energy exploration in Alaska, most people from the Lower 48 assume we're talking about ANWR. But it's another energy initiative — the Willow Project — that seems to be the real attention-grabber in many circles around the state. The Willow Project, announced in 2017, is estimated by ConocoPhillips to produce 180,000 barrels of oil a day from the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska (NPR-A). These projections and the potential for job creation have made its permitting a high-priority cause for the Alaska Delegation, particularly Senator Lisa Murkowski.
In the past two years alone, the Alaska Delegation (much of it with Congressman Young) issued countless press releases, sent many letters to Trump and Biden Administration officials, and took plenty of opportunities to advocate for Willow. Now, with Congresswoman Mary Peltola on the team, the Delegation's support has officially become bipartisan.
This week, Senator Lisa Murkowski, Senator Dan Sullivan, and Congresswoman Mary Peltola got the band back together, and full-delegation advocacy for the Willow Project resumed. On Tuesday, the Delegation sent a joint letter to Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior, urging the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to complete the permitting process for the Willow Project by year's end — in time for winter construction season.
Their piece hits all the important notes you'd expect from a letter like this: job creation, the benefit to the U.S. energy economy, and long-standing local support among them.
“The expeditious approval of this crucial project would greatly benefit Alaska, our nation, and the world, while demonstrating the Administration’s commitment to addressing inflation, high energy costs, the need for greater energy security, and environmental justice initiatives,” the Delegation wrote. “After years of study and review, both the Administration and Alaskans can feel confident that the Project will abide by the strictest environmental considerations in the world, while being constructed and operated by a company with an impressive record of safe and responsible development on the North Slope.”
Signing on is an interesting move for Congresswoman Peltola in particular. She campaigned as a different type of Democrat, a pragmatic leader who would always put Alaska first. The Willow letter was perhaps the first glimpse into how she'll thread the needle between her traditional Democratic constituency and the broadly popular Willow Project. The coalition in support of Willow is extensive; it has earned the public support of groups ranging from some Alaska Native leaders like Julie Kitka and those from the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope to the Alaska AFL-CIO and local mayors and other elected officials. I would be remiss to mention the national groups which have opposed the Willow Project. Earth Justice, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Center for Biological Diversity are just a few notables who have publicly opposed Willow. Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic and the Trustees for Alaska are some of the Alaskan groups in opposition.
Click here to read the Alaska Delegation's full letter.
Relief for western Alaska
Western Alaska has been absolutely devastated by Typhoon Merbok. You can't go far on Twitter without seeing heartbreaking images of the destruction left behind. Homes, schools, businesses, and countless other pieces of infrastructure have been lost, leaving vulnerable Alaskans in desperate need of help. Following the storm, Governor Michael Dunleavy (R-Alaska) issued a request for a federal disaster declaration to President Joe Biden. Sometimes in D.C., however, you need a little more muscle to move the needle in your favor. Enter the Alaska Delegation. In a letter on Tuesday, Senators Murkowski and Sullivan and Congresswoman Peltola echoed Dunleavy's request for a disaster declaration, writing:
"Our State emergency response team members are working day and night to ensure that our communities are safe and that utilities, services, and major infrastructure are operational as soon as possible. Alaska's public servants are instrumental in mitigating the immediate impact of the storm in Western Alaska. However, much more needs to be done. Governor Dunleavy indicated in his request that the damage was of such severity and scale that additional federal assistance is necessary to supplement the actions of our State agencies."
The Delegation's letter helped moved the ball forward. Two days later, President Biden officially approved Governor Dunleavy's request, and a federal disaster was declared. The full Delegation applauded President Biden's approval in a joint news release. "I appreciate the President for listening to us and recognizing the urgency of this situation. With winter weather looming, this federal assistance can't come soon enough," said Senator Murkowski. Senator Sullivan added, "I appreciate the quick response from the Biden Administration approving Governor Dunleavy's request for a Major Disaster declaration to support Alaska's recovery from the impacts of Typhoon Merbok on Alaska families, homes, businesses, schools, and infrastructure."
So often, when we think about Congress, our minds focus on "big ticket" items like legislation and committee hearings. But the bully pulpit entrusted to our elected leaders has great influence. Letters to Administration officials frequently go under the radar. But they really can get things across the finish line, which is especially important for the impacted Alaskans who desperately need federal support.
Fish are friends (and food)
Congresswoman Mary Peltola, who was sworn in on September 13th to finish Congressman Don Young's term, has captured headlines across the country with her trademark positivity and real-life experience. Her campaign's famous "Fish, Family, & Freedom" platform is as popular as it is alliterative. Following her win, countless Twitter users from the Lower 48 questioned what "pro-fish policies" actually meant. That Peltola was able to put fisheries policy — a wonky and somewhat niche area for non-Alaskans on a good day — front-and-center speaks to her successful campaign and style.
This week, she made her committee markup debut as the House Natural Resources Committee marked up legislation to reauthorize the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). If you're uncertain about what exactly a "markup" is, I'm here for you. Simply put, a markup is a key step in a bill's lifespan. In its most simple terms, at a markup, all committee members can offer amendments to a bill, in this case, H.R. 4690, the Sustaining America's Fisheries for the Future Act. Once all amendments have been voted on, a final vote on the now-amended bill itself is held. If approved in the committee markup, a bill can be considered for passage by the full House.
While H.R. 4690 was the star of the show, Congresswoman Peltola's very presence as a new Member of Congress (and a history-making one at that) was undoubtedly the markup's co-star. MSA is the nation's premier fisheries management law which was co-written and passed by none other than the late Congressman Don Young himself. The connection to Congressman Young and the importance to Alaska's economy and way of life make reauthorizing MSA crucial. Peltola made reauthorization of MSA a major part of her campaign, and this hearing was the opening salvo in her cause.
In her opening remarks, Congresswoman Peltola shared her own fishing experience and sounded the alarm on the urgency behind reauthorizing MSA with a focus on healthy fisheries and stocks. She also gave several shoutouts to Congressman Young (whose portrait was hanging nearby). Just last year, Peltola appeared as a witness before this very committee, testifying to Congressman Young on MSA.
The Congresswoman is steeped in fisheries policy, no doubt in part of her own time spent fishing on the Kuskokwim River and her work to get more Alaska Native voices at the fisheries policymaking table. In her remarks, she stated, "Nothing is more important to me as a Member of Congress than to protect the fisheries and the sea life that are crucial to Alaskan survival."
"Yesterday, I was honored to participate in the Committee on Natural Resources mark-up hearing on the reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens. The last time the committee met on this matter, I was called as a bipartisan witness by Congressman Young and Chairman Huffman," said Congresswoman Peltola. "This time, I had a seat at the table and offered an amendment that was adopted by the committee which will strengthen this legislation. The amendment called for adding two additional Alaska Native tribal seats to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and ensuring qualified candidates are selected."
Congresswoman Peltola knows why she's here and what she wants to see in MSA reauthorization. My advice? Buckle up, because I think she's going to get this done.
There was quite a bit of legislative activity this week. Allow me to catch you up on some of the major votes taken in both the House and Senate.
First up, we have the nomination of Judge Florence Pan to be United States Circuit Judge for the D.C. Circuit. Judge Pan was nominated by President Biden to fill the vacancy on the D.C. Circuit Court left by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who, of course, is now serving on the U.S. Supreme Court. Unlike legislation, judicial nominations are not subject to the 60-vote threshold that has doomed countless other bills in recent years. However, a simple majority is still needed to end the debate on a nomination and move to a final vote (known as invoking cloture).
Five Republicans voted to invoke cloture on Judge Pan; Senator Lisa Murkowski was one of them, but Senator Dan Sullivan was not. Judge Pan's nomination received a final vote, securing confirmation by a vote of 56-40. Alaska's senators were once again divided, with Senator Murkowski voting AYE and Senator Sullivan voting NAY.
Time to jump over to the House, which held a vote on a series of four police funding bills. The four pieces of legislation are the VICTIM Act, the Break the Cycle of Violence Act, the Mental Health Justice Act, and the Invest and Protect Act. Now, there's more to a piece of legislation than the name, and while they all sound good, the bill titles don't really give us much of an idea of what they do. The Office of Congressman Brian Higgins offered some helpful explainers:
The Invest to Protect Act authorizes $60M annually from FY 2023 through 2027 under the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) to support local police departments nationwide with fewer than 125 law officers.
The Break the Cycle of Violence Act supports grants to establish & support effective, evidence-based community violence intervention programs. HHS & DOL will award $6.5B in grants over eight years to community-based nonprofit organizations and eligible local governments.
The Mental Health Justice Act offers grants to hire, train, and dispatch mental health professionals to respond to emergencies involving people with a mental illness or an intellectual or developmental disability.
The VICTIM Act provides grant funding to state, tribal, or local law enforcement agencies and prosecuting offices to help with investigator training, retention, and technology toward the goal of attaining justice for victims of rape, sexual assault, kidnappings, and shootings.
Congresswoman Peltola voted YEA on all four pieces of legislation. Each of them earned some degree of Republican support as well. The dividing lines within the Democratic Caucus were clear. While the majority of Members voted in support of the bills, more progressive ones like Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Mark Pocan, and others voted NAY on the Invest to Protect Act.
Let's jump back to the Senate and examine their ratification of the Montreal Protocol (known as the Kigali Amendment). This landmark 1987 treaty was designed to support the earth's ozone layer by reducing the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons.
Senator Dan Sullivan secured a victory when the Senate unanimously adopted his amendment requiring future updates to the Montreal Protocol to be conditioned on the U.S. making efforts to strip China of the "developing nation" status granted to it by the United Nations (UN). The Senator's bipartisan victory was coupled with an impassioned speech on the Senate floor. China, Sullivan argued, "is not a "developing nation," and should no longer be able to exploit UN concessions and aid–often funded by U.S. taxpayers."
Other items of interest
Congresswoman Mary Peltola hasn't even hit the two-week mark in her congressional tenure, but she is wasting no time in assembling a strong team to serve Alaskans. Peltola frequently recalls her long-time family friendship with Congressman Young and expresses how much it means to have his office. It's clear she places a heavy value on institutional knowledge. Picking Congressman Young's Chief of Staff to be her own made headlines as a smart move, and this week, she did it again. In a news release, Peltola announced another hire from Congressman Young's office: his director of scheduling. Paula Conru comes aboard following positions with the Alaska Legislature, Alaska Governor's Office, and most recently as Congressman Don Young's Scheduler and Office Manager. I may be biased, having worked with her for so long, but she's the best of the best, and Congresswoman Peltola is lucky to have her.
“Paula’s deep understanding of Capitol Hill and years of service to Alaskans make her the perfect addition to my team," Peltola said. “I’m extremely grateful that she’s agreed to help me transition into my new role.”
The late Congressman Young was a long-time supporter of Special Olympics Alaska. He'd frequently host athletes in his office and let them take turns sitting in the Congressman for All Alaska's giant desk chair. This week in Anchorage, Special Olympics Alaska awarded the Jim Balamaci Award to Congressman Young in recognition of his support at the annual Breakfast with Champions event. His widow, Anne Garland Young, was on hand to accept the award on behalf of the late Congressman.
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Good summary. Thanks!
Great job Zach. Is this gonna be a weekly thing or what?