Political Bedfellows

“Politics makes strange bedfellows.”

Many years ago, my wife and I took our then-young children to visit Colonial Williamsburg, an historic area consisting of mainly 18th-century buildings in what was once the capital of Virginia.  The docent on our tour informed us that delegates to the colonial legislature would come from all over Virginia and stay in the handful of inns that were available, often sharing the same bed with other guests when the assembly was in session -- hence the origin of the expression above.

That’s a good story, and not beyond the realm of plausibility.  However, an admittedly cursory online search did not turn up any support for this origin of the phrase. Go figure.

All this is of little import, I suppose, but I got thinking about it after President Obama and Secretary Jewel announced their proposal that Congress designate an additional 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including the ecologically sensitive coastal plain, as protected Wilderness.  Seven million acres of the Refuge already bear this designation.  

As I noted in last week's post, Wilderness for the Arctic Refuge, the administration's proposals effectively have zero chance of being implemented by the current Congress.  That said, it was no surprise that Alaska’s Congressional delegation reacted with immediate criticism of the wilderness proposal.  I was taken aback, however, by some of the rhetoric used.

For example, the new Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senator Lisa Murkowski, called the proposals “a stunning attack on our sovereignty.”  Last year, my “Whose Land?” series of posts discussed, and rejected, the parochial view that our nation’s arctic resources somehow belong to Alaskans more than to other Americans.  Alaska is sometimes called an "owner state," but it does not own national lands, including the Arctic Refuge -- we all do.  Would anyone seriously suggest that a proposal to conduct hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the Grand Canyon should be decided only by residents of Arizona?  How is the Refuge different as a sovereignty matter?

I understand, and deeply respect, the argument for local interests when made with respect to indigenous peoples who have lived on the land for thousands of years and whose culture is inexorably intertwined with it.  And from that perspective it is noteworthy that the Gwich’in Steering Committee has strongly endorsed the administration’s proposals, noting “that the caribou birthplace on the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain must be protected for future generations.  This is a human rights issue.  Oil development there would hurt the caribou and threaten the Gwich’in way of life.”

But the same human rights argument cannot be made for the overwhelming majority of Alaskans, about half of whom live in or near Anchorage, far removed from the arctic. 

Nor do Alaskans have a special legal standing in this matter.  Freshman Senator Dan Sullivan responded to the proposals by labeling it part of the President’s alleged “war on families.”  As inexplicable as that language might be, he then advanced a legal argument that the action “disregards the rule of law and specifically ignores many of the promises made to Alaska in ANILCA.”  (Read the Alaska Dispatch News report here.) 

Perhaps the Senator was thinking of the so-called “no more” clause, which is Section 1326 of the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA), usually read in combination with the “Purposes” title of the Act.  Under the “no more” clause, Congressional approval is required for any executive branch “withdrawal” of more than 5,000 acres of public land after giving effect to the wilderness designations made in ANILCA.

Assuming that Congress fails to implement the current proposals and the administration seeks some alternative approach, there will likely be an interesting test of legal interpretation with respect to the “no more” clause.  Here's an example:  would protection under other legal authorities such as the Antiquities Act constitute a “withdrawal,” which is a term that ANILCA does not define?  If not, then the "no more" clause would be inapplicable.

Let’s leave that and other legal arguments for another day.  The inexplicable part is that as of now the President’s proposal is nothing more than a recommendation to Congress that it enact the wilderness designation, which it clearly has every right and authority to do.  It is difficult for me to see how asking Congress to take legislative action within its power could conceivably disregard the rule of law or ignore ANILCA.

But I digress.  What does all this have to do with the phrase about strange bedfellows that may or may not have originated in Colonial Williamsburg? 

Within hours of the administration’s announcement I started receiving communications from the Alaska Democratic Party.  Now you might think that Alaska Democrats would be on the same page as a Democratic President and his administration.  You would be wrong.

The pro-development slant taken by the Alaska Democrats is that former Senator Mark Begich stood firm as a firewall against arctic conservation, and that his replacement by Dan Sullivan has resulted in a loss of political clout that is now enabling the administration to make wilderness proposals.  Other than the carping about the new Senator’s lack of effectiveness, the Republican Congressional delegation would be substantially in accord with the Democrats press release, which you can read at this link

Even some, but not all, members of the Alaska Democratic Progressive Caucus are opposed to the President's position on protecting the Refuge, based on their inconsistent social media postings.  Evidently, the "please in my back yard" (PIMBY)approach, based on unsound sovereignty principles, is a response that cuts across political party and ideological lines.

As I said in a recent post, Got Oil?, where you stand sometimes depends on where you sit.  Alaska sits on a lot of undeveloped oil.  That, coupled with plunging energy prices, leads to "important, and perhaps difficult to predict, impacts on issues such as development versus conservation in the Arctic Refuge ...."  We are seeing evidence of that now.

The Alaska Democratic Party, the Alaska Democratic Progressive Caucus and the Alaska Republican Congressional delegation -- PIMBY politics makes for strange bedfellows indeed. 

Caribou moving toward a crossing of the Kongakut River, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Caribou moving toward a crossing of the Kongakut River, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.