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Lisa M.
Republican AK

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  • Nomination of Robert Leon Wilkins to Be United States Circuit Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit

    by Senator Lisa Murkowski

    Posted on 2014-01-09

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    Read More about Nomination of Robert Leon Wilkins to Be United States Circuit Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit

    MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, it has been a disappointing week here in the Senate. I started out the week feeling pretty good and optimistic. I had a major presentation before the Brookings Institution. I talked about the enormous potential in this country for energy production and the fact that we are at the highest level of energy production domestically than we have been in 20 years and what great prospects we have for that. When we talk about jobs and economic opportunity, it is really one of the bright spots out there.

    Of course, the debate this week has been over unemployment compensation and the extension, initially proposed by the President to be a 3-month extension--an emergency, temporary extension. I was one of six Republicans who came together and said: This is an important conversation for us to be having at this particular point in time.

    As we know, the long-term employment benefits expired on December 28, 2013. It impacted over 1 million Americans around the country. In my home State of Alaska about 6,500 people lost long-term benefits at the end of the year, and it was one of these cold turkey things. Those who still had eligibility for certain benefits were cut off hard. There was no tapering down. This is hard.

    Back here in Washington, DC, we have been living with some pretty cold weather. It is cold weather all the time in Alaska at this time of the year. It is hard to be out of work. It is expensive to keep your homes heated. It is expensive to live there, and so I recognize that the safety nets we put in place are important. It is important for us to have discussions and debates so we can argue and compromise on the issue of long-term employment benefits. That is a conversation we should have. I wanted to have that debate.

    I wanted the opportunity for full-on amendments so we could bring up good ideas, such as, good ideas about reform and perhaps tying benefits to job training, retooling, giving people that opportunity to move forward, and debate about how we pay for it. There have been times when we extended long-term unemployment benefits with an offset, and then there have been times [[Page S216]] when we extended it on an emergency basis with no offset. But let's talk about it, let's debate it, and let's put up some amendments.

    I was part of that group that really thought we would not only be able to talk, but that we would actually be able to weigh in as Members representing our States, presenting our ideas, and speaking for our constituents on issues that are very important around the country. Usually in a body such as the Senate, actions don't happen unless there is an opportunity to vote on issues.

    So this afternoon when I listened to the majority leader's statement, he said very clearly that we weren't going to have any amendments on the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act. In fact, his words were: We get nowhere with doing amendments. I find that so disturbing.

    I have only been in the Senate for 10 years, but what I have seen in my 10 years is a change in the process--a change in an institution where we are no longer taking the good ideas from this side and the good ideas from the other side through an amendment process--or even from a committee process for that matter--and building better policy based on the good ideas that we all have.

    Why would we be afraid to vote on amendments? They may take us a little bit longer throughout the day to go through. It disrupts our schedules. My schedule is to work for the people of Alaska, and if that business isn't conducted here through debate and voting, then what is it? What is it? I was really quite discouraged after the exchange on the floor earlier. Colleagues have worked hard to come up with some good proposals. These are not ``gotcha'' amendments as was suggested by the majority leader.

    I think the proposal of the Senator from Ohio--a proposal that is actually contained in the President's budget proposal--was absolutely legitimate. So to suggest that it is an amendment without merit is not fair.

    At the end of the day, don't we judge the merit of an amendment, of an idea or of a proposal by presenting it to the body for a vote? If we truly are at that point where we are simply not going to amend bills, that we are simply going to vote straight up or down on a bill that has been presented to us--probably not even out of the committee process but more likely from the majority leader's chambers--that is a tough place for us to be as a body. That is not what this process is all about.

    The minority leader reminded us yesterday that we can do better. We can do better as an institution, but we sure didn't demonstrate that today.

    I want to work with my colleagues on the issue of unemployment compensation. I want to be able to recognize that compassion that we show for other Americans who are dealing with great difficulty right now. I want to try to move this country forward with policies that are good and strong and create those jobs.

    Energy When I started my comments, I talked about energy production being that bright light. Look at what is happening in the State of North Dakota where, boy, anybody who wants a job can get one. In fact, they can get two or three jobs.

    They are ground zero in this type of oil revolution. Their unemployment rate was 2.7 percent last October. There has been a lot of back-and-forth going on about Keystone and its potential for providing direct jobs, direct and indirect end use jobs around the country-- 42,000 jobs around the country. Wouldn't that be helpful? When we talk about our opportunities in this country, we need to be putting in place policies that help advance jobs and job creation and the wealth then that comes with it. We can and must be doing more.

    One of the areas we need to address is where this administration, in my view, has seen some real policy failures; that is, in restricting access to Federal lands for resource development, blocking and slowing the permitting process. We need to be doing more. The President has touted the gains made in energy production. But I think it is important to recognize that most of those gains have been on private and State lands. The Presiding Officer and I know there are enormous resources on our Federal lands. Let's access them. Let's access them safely and in an environmentally responsible way but in a way that is going to help our economy, help the job situation in this country. I feel we can do so much more. I am hopeful again that we will, in this body, in this institution, be able to work together to solve some of the issues that confront us. But, again, I am disappointed.

    I did not come to the floor this evening to talk about the comments made earlier on where we are in the amendment process and not being able to advance an amendment process. But my colleagues can tell I care deeply about this institution. I care deeply about our responsibility to govern around here. I am not convinced we are governing to our ability. We need to make some changes, and it only comes when we acknowledge that those changes have to come and that cooperation has to come from both sides.

    Emergency Connector Road Tonight I come to the floor to talk about a decision that came out of the Department of Interior the day before Christmas Eve. This is a decision that in my view is absolutely unconscionable, and it is a decision that was made by the Secretary of the Interior the afternoon of December 23, in which she rejected a medical emergency connector road between two very remote Alaskan communities, the community of King Cove and Cold Bay.

    I have thought long and hard about my public comments to my colleagues in the Senate because I have spoken out about this at home and I was very direct. I was very direct about my anger, my disappointment, and my frustration. I recognize I have to work with folks in this administration, and when we are talking about the Secretary of the Interior, I recognize she is effectively Alaska's landlord. I need to be able to figure out a way to get along with her. But I have to tell my colleagues that this was absolutely a heartless decision by Secretary Jewell. It was a decision that she alone made, and it will only serve to endanger the Alaskan Native village residents of King Cove.

    With the decision the Secretary made, she has put the interests of certain environmental groups and the alleged peace and comfort of the birds, the waterfowl in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge above the lives of hundreds of Alaskans, because 950 Alaskans live in King Cove. By the Secretary's act of denying this short road needed to ensure the people of King Cove reliable and safe access to an all-weather airport in nearby Cold Bay, Secretary Jewell has effectively turned her back on the Aleut people of western Alaska. She has discarded her duty to uphold the trust responsibility the Federal Government owes to its Native peoples.

    The uncle of the Presiding Officer served as Secretary of the Interior. He knew full well that trust responsibility. It is a high trust and the Secretary has turned her back on the Native people out in King Cove.

    To add insult to what could very well be real injury or even death, Secretary Jewell did this on the day before Christmas Eve. On the day before Christmas Eve, I received a voice mail message from the Secretary telling me that she later in that afternoon was going to deny the road to King Cove. What was I doing? I was doing the exact same thing most of the people around me were doing--we were at the last minute getting ready for Christmas. I was in the parking lot of a Fred Meyer store going inside to get Scotch tape and wrapping paper.

    The decision made by the Secretary is one that goes beyond building a 10-mile, one-lane, gravel, noncommercial-use road between King Cove and Cold Bay. This decision makes clear to us in Alaska that our lives--the lives of the people, the human beings who are there--just don't seem to matter to the Secretary. It is clear to me that either she does not understand or she does not care about the most basic needs of our remote residents, and it is quite clear that we have, once again, received unfair treatment at the hands of our Federal Government.

    Sometimes it just feels as though those on the outside, whether it is the Federal Government, back here, 4,000 miles away from home, that there is this sense that Alaskans need to be protected from themselves. Quite honestly, that is offensive. Quite frankly, I [[Page S217]] have a very hard time believing that if this same situation occurred somewhere in the lower 48, the decision would be the same. The fact is we are out of sight, we are out of mind. There are only 720,000 people in Alaska. There are only 950 people, or thereabouts, in King Cove. Who is going to be upset? Well, I am upset. I am upset. Not only have the people of King Cove been wronged, but the people of Alaska have been wronged. This is not a decision that is going to just go away because we all got caught up in the Christmas holidays. This is not going to be something the people of Alaska or this Senator will forget, because we are not done.

    I have been to this floor many times--many times--in fact, I think the Presiding Officer has been in the chair on previous occasions--when I have come to call attention to this lifesaving road and the land exchange that was approved by Congress, signed into law by the President. I feel as though I have told this story so many times I don't need to remind folks, but I am going to provide a brief refresher.

    The recent story of King Cove actually started pretty well. Congress came together almost 5 years ago to give the Interior Secretary reason and authority to act in the public interest when it comes to providing access. But as is so often the case, this has become yet another terrible example of the interests of our people put at risk by their own Federal Government. So back in 2009 we passed--I introduced legislation--we passed legislation that proposed to add more than 56,000 acres of State and tribal land to the Izembek Refuge in exchange for a 206-acre road corridor through a corner of the refuge. Again, I wish to repeat the numbers because some people say I must have forgotten a zero: In exchange for 56,000 acres of State and tribal land, a 206-acre road corridor. In addition to the fact that this is basically a 300-to-1 exchange that was offered, there was agreement that this road would be so limited--so limited as to have an infinitesimally small impact on the refuge. The people of King Cove are not insensitive to the fact that this is a very rich ecosystem out there. This is a very rich area. This is where the birds come through. They have no interest in harming or damaging the refuge.

    So the agreement was for a one-lane, between 10 and 11 miles long, gravel road, severely restricted by law--restricted by law; not just an agreement where the mayor says, oh, during my tenure, we are not going to use it for commercial purposes. This is in law: noncommercial purposes, one-lane, 11-mile-long gravel road. In addition, there were going to be roping corridors so that if a vehicle is on the road, it wouldn't be able to go off the road and onto the refuge and lay tire marks or impact the refuge at all.

    The Department of Interior EIS clearly showed that the actual acreage inside the refuge to be impacted by fill material was just around 2.7 acres. Again, think about the exchange. They are giving up 56,000 acres in exchange for a 206-acre road corridor and, of that, the impact by fill material is just about 2.7 acres. So consider also that the exchange would have added 2,300 acres of eelgrass beds to the refuge.

    This is prime habitat and feed for the black brant, and this was something that clearly Secretary Jewell felt was very valuable because she chose to place higher value on those black brants than she did on human and wildlife values. That 2,300 acres, then, is about 20 times more than the eelgrass that the EIS said might have been impacted by erosion as a result of the road. So the rejection of this exchange just dumbfounds me. I don't understand it.

    The State of Alaska and the local tribal groups were willing to give up 56,000 acres of land. Keep in mind, these are lands that were given to them under the Native Land Claims Settlement Act. These lands represent who they are, and they are willing to give up 56,000 acres of it for a lousy one-lane, 11-mile gravel, noncommercial-use road. That is how much this road meant to them, because it was more than a road. It was a lifesaving connector. It was a way for them to get to an all- weather airport, the second longest runway in the State of Alaska that was built during World War II; an amazing runway, actually, that isn't encumbered by the topography and the weather as the King Cove Airport is.

    So you have a people who are desperate for a solution, so desperate for their solution that they are willing to give up their lands. The most prized thing the Native people have in our State are the lands around them, and they are willing to exchange them for a small road corridor--a 300 to 1 exchange--and the proposed land that would have been provided to the Federal Government is pristine land that is valuable for the waterfowl, for the wildlife, certainly would enhance and benefit the refuge.

    But Secretary Jewell said no to this. She said no to this 300 to 1 exchange--an exchange that would enhance the habitat for the birds she wants to protect. It really makes you wonder: Has there ever been such a lopsided land exchange that has been rejected by the Federal Government? The former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Dale Hall, was the one who largely picked the lands and had approved of this exchange back in 2006--long before this legislation was ever introduced. So the Federal agencies, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service had looked at all this and said: OK, in order to get this corridor, there is going to have to be some exchange, so let's figure out what it is going to be. He gave his blessing to that back in 2006.

    But what this does speak to is how strongly Alaskans feel about protecting the health and safety of our residents, and rightly so. I would submit to you, Mr. President, if Secretary Jewell and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service truly had--truly had--the best interests of both the human residents and the birds of the Izembek Refuge in mind, they would have recognized that adding 56,000 acres, while taking out just 206 acres--and, then again, of that, the amount that would have actually been impacted by fill is 2.7 acres--I think they would provide far greater benefit to the refuge than any small, single-lane, gravel, noncommercial road ever possibly could subtract.

    The legislation directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct an EIS for the road. So the 2009 legislation that passed the House, that passed the Senate, that was signed into law by the President, directed Fish and Wildlife to conduct an EIS. That agency prepared a faulty EIS. They failed to adhere to the underlying law, choosing a ``no action'' alternative and failing to adequately account for health and human safety when selecting the preferred alternative. This is more evidence of systematic disregard for the well-being of the Aleut who have lived in this region for thousands of years.

    I also want to touch very briefly upon Interior's trust responsibility to Alaska Native peoples. The Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Kevin Washburn, went to King Cove. He visited. He actually spent 2 days there. In fact, they actually had some pretty stinky weather when he was there, and I think he saw firsthand what the residents of King Cove deal with in getting in and out. The Assistant Secretary wrote a report for Secretary Jewell. It was not made public until after the Secretary announced her decision, which I think was unfortunate. But again, back to the trust responsibility--the responsibility that the Federal Government has to protect the health and safety of Native Americans.

    But here you have the Fish and Wildlife Service, you have Assistant Secretary Washburn, and now, finally, Secretary Jewell, who had the opportunity to encourage or actually make a decision that would improve the lives of the residents of King Cove. They turned their backs on these people, and they diminished the hopes of these first peoples.

    The EIS, which recommended no action--no action--to help the people of King Cove has a clear negative impact on the health and safety of Alaska Natives who live in that village. The official report that was prepared by Mr. Washburn regarding his visit to King Cove, I believe, was inadequate--wholly inadequate--and, quite frankly, very weak.

    He, the Assistant Secretary, is viewed as a leading legal scholar on Native trust responsibility. I truly have high hopes for him because I believe that his heart clearly is in that right place. But his report falls woefully short of his duty to the Aleut people, and I expected more of him--truly [[Page S218]] I did--and I know the people of King Cove deserve better.

    The health and safety of the people of King Cove is not some speculative issue. We are not just talking about, oh, the weather is bad there or somebody might get hurt. The fact of the matter is that since 1980, 18 people have died, and they have died because of medevac delays or because of the dangers connected with the medevac flights out of the fishing village.

    It is not easy to get in and out of King Cove. They have an airstrip, yes, they do, but they are surrounded on three sides by mountains, and a valley on one and the ocean on another. The Coast Guard describes medevacs into King Cove as one of the more frightening, more challenging operations that the Coast Guard is tasked to do. You might say, why is the Coast Guard doing medevacs? Well, because medevac flights from Anchorage--some 600 miles away--cannot get in. They say: The risk to us to fly in for somebody who is in the midst of a difficult labor and needs to get out to the nearest hospital--which is Anchorage, 600 miles away--is too great or we are not willing to risk our lives. So whom do you call? You call the Coast Guard.

    In 2012, the Coast Guard was called in, I believe, five times, at a cost of up to $210,000 to the taxpayers per trip, to bring in a crew to medevac that individual out. So if you can fly in--if the Coast Guard is able to do it, they will be there. But, in the meantime, you have had people die, and you have had planes crash.

    If you cannot get out, the alternative is--because there is no road; there is no 10-mile, one-lane, gravel, noncommercial-use connector road--you can go across the water. Think about it. If the weather is bad enough up in the air, think about what it is doing down in that ocean. It is pretty tough.

    So you can come across the water for hours in 15-, 20-foot seas, but then, once you get over to Cold Bay, it is not like they can just load you into a nice airplane on the runway there. You have to get docked, and up off the dock to get to the airport.

    The fact of the matter is King Cove and Cold Bay--it is a little bit rustic out there. What is in this picture I have in the Chamber is probably a little difficult to see. This is the top of the dock at night. This is about a 20-foot drop to the ocean here. You have metal ladders that you climb up, if you are able. But if you are able, you probably do not need to be medevaced out. A person with a heart condition, how is he climbing up this metal ladder--as the waves are crashing against him in the dark and in the wind? What you are seeing here is basically a sled that has been hoisted up on a crane, swinging around in the wind in the dark.

    I do not have the picture here of the elder who had suffered a heart condition and could not make it up the steps. They could not hoist him up. They put him in a crab pot and hauled him up by crane on to the top of the dock so that they could then take him to the airport, where he was safely evacuated out and made it to Anchorage.

    As I say, when we are talking about the health and safety of the people of King Cove, it is not speculative. People are dying. People have died. People are afraid to fly. The testimony that the Secretary heard, that my colleagues have heard--as the people of King Cove have come back, they have said: Enough.

    The Secretary, in her visit to King Cove in August, stood before the schoolchildren there at an assembly--and she is very good with children, and it was good to watch the exchange--but those children spoke up to her and told her why they needed a road out of King Cove. To hear a child say: We need a road so that I am not afraid to fly and because I don't want anyone to die. This is an issue, again, where the stories we have heard, the Secretary has heard--because I was there with her; we heard the stories together--they are heartwrenching. They bring tears to your eyes. The people, the families who have lived with this have been devastated. The Secretary heard all this, and yet it seems that she has just chosen to ignore the voices of those children, the stories of those elders, the pictures of an elder being hauled up in a crab pot so he can make a medevac to Anchorage.

    I want my colleagues to know here in the Senate, as well as the administration, that I am not going to let this issue die. There is a simple reason why. Because I am not willing to let anyone in King Cove suffer or die because they do not have emergency access out of their village.

    This decision rested squarely on the shoulders of Secretary Jewell, who then announced this devastating news only hours before Christmas Eve--a heartless decision delivered at a heartless time. The Secretary said to me that there is no good time to deliver bad news, and I would agree. But the timing of this decision was solely hers. There was no deadline within which she had to act. She chose to announce it on Monday afternoon, at 3 p.m., Washington, DC time, knowing that everyone was going to be skating out of here for the holidays, hoping that everyone was going to be distracted with their family events, hoping that no one was going to be watching. She knew that the people of King Cove would be upset. She knew that I would be upset--but less than a thousand people, she thinks. That is not how you do things. It is not how you do things.

    The people of King Cove are without hope right now for one reason; and that is because of this decision from the Secretary. I have come here to tell the Senate what happened to them in what was supposed to be--what was supposed to be--a season of joy and celebration. I truthfully cannot use strong enough words to show the depth of my anger for this decision.

    I cannot fathom why she came to it, why she was willing to sign her name to it. But I, for one, never thought that we would see a day where, under the guise of making a public interest determination, a Cabinet Secretary would so blatantly disregard the public's health and safety. But we have.

    So the question now is, does it stand? Are we going to do what we know is right and make sure that those who live in King Cove are protected? I have my answer. I am going to stand in solidarity with the people of King Cove and others in Alaska and across the country whose well-being is put at risk by misguided government decisions, devoid of proper balance between human and wildlife considerations.

    I have not yet identified every opportunity I may have to draw attention to, resist, and seek redress from Secretary Jewell's bad decision.

    An obvious and perhaps an easy step would be to introduce yet another bill. But I am not willing to concede that the last word has been spoken on the law, the law we enacted in 2009. That law passed after a great deal of effort. There was debate. There was significant compromise as I have outlined. But that was a law we had all negotiated. I do not believe that law has been properly implemented. Who knows how and whether the courts may address that injustice.

    A messaging bill might get some attention. But I am concerned that its immediate consequence may be to legitimize in the eyes of many a bad decision we should be fighting rather than accepting. I think the people of King Cove deserve better.

    The Department of Interior needs more balance. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs better direction. I am not ruling out any possible remedy. In this case, Alaskans have been made the victim. But I think that all Americans are at risk from this kind of unbalanced decisionmaking. I pledge to my colleagues and my constituents that I am going to keep fighting for what is right, both morally and legally.

    This fight is not over. Again, the attention is drawn to the residents of King Cove and a small connector road in a very remote part of our country. But I do think it is emblematic of the bigger struggle, the bigger fight we are seeing as a State with our own agencies, with our own Federal Government.

    I have taken a great deal of time this evening. I appreciate the Presiding Officer's attention as I have made my case. I am certain the administration is listening to my words as well. As I indicated at the outset, in Alaska we have no choice but to figure out how we deal with our agencies because they consume, they occupy so much of how we are even able to move forward as a State. I will continue to do what I can to work with this administration in a manner that is going to benefit the people whom I work for. But I will always put the health and safety and best interests of Alaskans first.

    [[Page S219]] I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.

    The assistant legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.

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