Washington DC: The President’s 2017 budget request contains substantial funding for Arctic priorities. The Republican majority in Congress guarantees uphill battles in the coming negotiations, but few lawmakers want a repeat of earlier budget brinksmanship in the weeks before an election. Least of all HouseSpeaker Paul Ryan, who was elected on the promise of compromise.
President Barack Obama’s budget request for 2017 arrived on Capitol Hill Tuesday, where House Speaker Paul Ryan proclaimed it a “manual for growing the federal government at the expense of hard-working Americans.”
Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate will mean uphill battles for many of the priorities outlined in the budget proposal, but the White House expressed hope for bipartisan support for the priorities outlined for the Arctic.
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The newly re-named Denali mountain (formerly Mt McKinley) covers the front page of the budget proposal. While supporters praised this emphasis on the Arctic, opponents have proclaimed it the perfect symbol of a “mountain of expenses”.
Keeping his promises
During the visit to Alaska last September, president Obama promised more support for initiatives benefitting the population of the state, and the budget request includes substantial numbers. In a press release accompanying the budget request, the White House reiterated the President’s commitment to Alaska’s “long-term economic and environmental well-being”. In the request this translates into, among other things, the establishment of a Coastal Climate Resilience Fund, where about 400 million dollars (of a 2 billion dollar total budget) is set aside for assistance to vulnerable Alaskan communities.
The federal Denali Commission, which facilitates assistance and development in Alaska, would receive 19 million, 4 million above the 2016 enacted level. A number of federal agencies would receive funding aimed at supporting environmental, energy-related and infrastructure projects, and it would provide full funding (900 million dollars) for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. To pay for this, the President would repeal oil and gas revenue sharing agreements with some states and redirect the funds. The proposal also includes a 10-dollar per barrel tax increase for oil companies, and idea Congress Republicans have declared “dead on arrival”.
Whether or not funding for a future icebreaker would be included in Obama’s last budget blueprint has been an issue of much debate over the past few months. Many consider it a symbol of the administration’s Arctic commitment. The request specifies 150 million dollars for the initial activities, with a goal of starting the actual building process in 2020. A new polar-class icebreaker is expected to cost more than a billion dollars, and could take up to ten years to build.
Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, applauds president Obama’s commitment to the procurement of a new icebreaker, but has concerns regarding other urgent Coast Guard acquisition needs:
“The $150 million budget to progress the acquisition of a U.S. icebreaker is very positive. It demonstrates that there is serious commitment to this procurement. However, it is my understanding that this comes out of the USCG's (regular) procurement budget. This is concerning because it will drive tough decisions about reducing Coast Guard procurement in other critical areas. There still remains the question of an interim icebreaker solution and the budget remains silent on issues related to leasing, bringing the other heavy-icebreaker, Polar Sea, back on line or extending the life of Polar Star. “
Conley also points out that the next U.S. administration will have to re-confirm the decision to procure an icebreaker as well.
Seeking no drama
Alaska’s Republican senator Lisa Murkowski calls the icebreaker funding request “a positive step in the right direction”, but warns that “federal budgets are expressions of priorities, not actual spending”.
Although she agrees with initiatives to assist Alaskans with the impact of climate change, Murkowski and her fellow Republicans strongly disagree with many of the President’s proposals of how to pay for it.
As a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, and Chair of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, Murkowski will be an influential voice in the process leading to the actual spending.
Budget negotiations in Congress are expected to be challenging, as conservative hardliners in the Republican party, the so-called Freedom Caucus, have signaled a number of demands and an unyielding focus on budget cuts. Adding to the challenges is the fact the 2016 is an election year, when Congress plans to spend as little time as possible in Washington.
Proposed schedules show a minimum number of legislative days in Washington, as Members wish to spend as much time as possible on the campaign trail in their home districts. However, both House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) have put spending bills on top of their 2016 agenda and will seek to avoid any dramatic budget showdowns. The leadership is expected to do its utmost to keep unruly colleagues in check and find compromises, both within the Republican party and with Democratic colleagues. The funding for the proposals for the Arctic will depend on their success.
The 2017 budget year starts October 1st, 2016.