The Schnorrer State

The accomplishments Ted Stevens brags about are worse than the crimes he denies.


A few years ago, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma suggested taking money earmarked for a notoriously extravagant "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska and using it for reconstruction in Louisiana. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, a fellow Republican, angrily declared, "This is the first time I have seen any attempt by any senator to treat my state…differently from any other state."

In a tirade that included threats to behave like "a wounded bull on the floor of the Senate," to "be taken out of here on a stretcher," and to "resign from this body," Stevens' insistence that all he wanted was equal treatment for Alaska may have been the least believable thing he said. During the last four decades, no one has done more than Stevens to ensure that Alaska is treated unequally, receiving far more in federal spending than it pays in taxes.

The octogenarian senator's gift for grabbing dollars in the zero-sum game of congressional appropriations helps explain his easy victory in last summer's Republican primary, despite his indictment less than a month before on federal charges of hiding corporate gifts. Yet the "track record of delivering results for Alaskans" he brags about is more scandalous than the crimes he denies.

Federal prosecutors accused Stevens of violating the Ethics in Government Act by failing to report more than $250,000 in gifts from VECO Corp., a now-defunct oil services and construction company whose CEO has admitted bribing state officials. Stevens' trial was expected to conclude a few weeks before the November 4 general election.

Although the government said Stevens "could and did use his official position and his office on behalf of VECO," it did not charge him with accepting bribes, apparently because it did not have enough evidence of a quid pro quo. But if Stevens did help VECO with grants or contracts, it was of a piece with the "results" he has delivered for his constituents since he joined the Senate in 1968. And the amount of taxpayer money involved was a drop in the ocean compared to the billions of dollars he has directed Alaska's way.

From 2004 to 2008, Taxpayers for Common Sense reports, Stevens had a hand in 891 Alaska-benefiting earmarks worth $3.2 billion. That works out to about $4,800 per Alaskan, 18 times the national average. And earmarks represent just a fraction of federal spending in Alaska, which totaled $9 billion in 2006 alone.

According to the Tax Foundation, Alaska ranked first in federal spending per capita in 18 of the 25 years from 1981 through 2005. In 2005 Alaskans received $1.84 for every dollar they sent to Washington in taxes. Stevens has played such an important role in this northward redistribution of income that Alaskans call federal spending "Stevens money."

Alaska continues to receive these subsidies even though its government, which collects neither sales nor income tax from state residents, is flush with oil revenue and running budget surpluses. Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, portrayed by allies as a foe of old-school, money-grubbing Alaska Republicans like Stevens, has been happy to rake in the federal dollars as governor (and as mayor of Wasilla).

Although Alaskans are the biggest beneficiaries of congressional largess, Stevens, who lobbied for statehood in the 1950s, still sees them as victims of a high-handed federal government. During his 2005 tantrum over Tom Coburn's proposal to move transportation money from Alaska to hurricane-stricken Louisiana (a proposal the Senate overwhelmingly rejected), Stevens repeatedly invoked his state's "sovereign" and "equal" status, seemingly worried that his colleagues were disrespecting Alaska behind his back. His attitude was reminiscent of a beggar who not only demands a handout but insists that everyone pretend the money was his all along.

Senior Editor Jacob Sullum writes a weekly syndicated column. © Copyright 2008 by Creators Syndicate Inc.