As chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) sits at the forefront of crucial debates on the future of energy and environment policy in the United States, from oil and gas development on federal lands to the development of clean, innovative technologies. On October 28, EPIC and the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics (BFI) hosted a wide-ranging conversation with Murkowski on those issues as well as her Alaskan roots, health policy, and how she works to pass legislation in a divided government. EPIC and BFI Director Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, moderated the discussion.
When it comes to the most efficient climate policy, Greenstone noted that economists largely agree: set a price on carbon and pair it with investments in research and development. So why is that having so much trouble gaining traction in Congress? Murkowski said that translating ideas and implementing them into a policy that works for everyone is one of the biggest challenges facing Congress today.
“We represent different people from different areas who need to have their voices heard,” Murkowski said. “So how we allow those voices to be expressed and meld them into legislation is a messy process. It is not something that is formulaic.”
Ensuring that her decisions represent what is best for Alaskans is a strong motivator for Murkowski. “I think you build respect when the decisions that you make on a policy basis are because you are driven by the desire to do what’s right by the people that sent you there in the first place,” she said.
It was the interests of Alaskans, Murkowski recalled, that drove her decision-making during the 2017 debates over the Affordable Care Act. “There were a lot of different reasons behind the debates and where I was on that, but coming from a very rural state with very high health care costs and very little overall access, everything that my party was putting out there, that was an option to vote on, didn’t work in my state. And so, for me, it was not political. It was, I can’t go home and tell people that it’s going to cost you more and you are going to have less access.”
The reality that everyone in Congress represents different people is one important reason for compromise. But, there’s another: “I think it comes down to an acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe, I don’t have a monopoly on all of the good ideas and you too can have some good ideas and together we can build support.”
Building that bipartisan support is, Murkowski believes, particularly important for big initiatives. “In order for it to be enduring, you’ve got to have input from both sides. You’ve got to have buy-in from all corners of the country,” she said.
The growing partisan divisions across the country, however, are making consensus-building harder than ever, Murkowski warned. “I look at the time and place we are at right now and I don’t like it. I don’t like that we are as politically polarized as we are. I don’t think that is good for the country.”
This is not to say, she continued, that people’s views cannot differ. But the manner matters. “I think that you can challenge the status quo. I think you can shake things up, but I think that there are ways you can do it that are respectful and civil. And I know I sound a little bit like somebody’s mother, in saying that, but I feel that we are becoming less civil as a society and I think that leadership in setting the tone really matters.”
In her own leadership role in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Murkowski makes sure that the group is focused on consensus-based work. Doing so, she says, means agreeing to move past differences to focus on areas of common agreement: “You aren’t going to agree with me on this 10 percent, and I am not going to agree with you on this 10 percent. But there is 80 percent in the middle that we as a committee can work on. What are we going to do?”
As an example of her ability to forge compromises, Murkowski highlighted a package of land and water conservation bills passed by the Senate shortly after the historic government shutdown in February 2019. Murkowski is also a founding member of the new Senate bipartisan climate caucus. Murkowski commented, “To even be using the words [climate change] out loud for some of my colleagues is extraordinary.”
A third generation Alaskan, Murkowski knows that climate change is real and affecting people in her home state every day.
“For us in Alaska, climate change is not some theoretical exercise. It’s not something that is discussed in the abstract. We see it as we are seeing the oceans warm and as we are seeing the sea ice recede.”
For the past 17 years, Murkowski has been involved in the move of an Alaska Native community of 350 people who have lived in that region for thousands of years. She explained how complicated the process is, not only in terms of the physical infrastructure that needed to be built, but also in terms of the wrenching social and cultural consequences for the displaced group.
Greenstone noted that Alaska’s experience will be vital to the Lower 48 as policymakers there grapple with which cities and communities should receive adaptation assistance moving forward. “If you look along the Atlantic coast with sea-level rise, I suspect that someday in the not too distant future there is going to have to be super painful conversations about ‘Well, we are going to protect that one, but we are not going to protect that one.’ So, Alaska is really on the leading edge here.”
Greenstone asked Murkowski how she finds the right balance between combating climate change and maintaining the natural resource production her state’s budget depends on. She explained that climate change is a major problem, but at the same time, Alaskans depend on the services, investments, and dividend checks made possible by the state’s oil revenues. Alaska is a cold state with limited physical infrastructure and a high cost of living; 80 percent of Alaska’s communities are not connected by road. In many remote communities, diesel fuel – commonly used for heating – is a vital, but expensive, lifeline. Oil income helps many households manage those substantial costs.
Murkowski ended her visit with some advice for the students in the audience.
“Focus on your passion, what drives you, and where you feel very challenged. That will set you up as much as anything. So, you don’t need to have that degree necessarily in one certain thing, but you need to be passionate about something. And that passion will allow you to achieve levels of leadership that others then look to and say, ‘You would be a good person to serve.’”
She continued: “The best advice that I can give is do not wait until it’s convenient, because there will never be a time in your life where it will be convenient to be a public servant. There will always be something…There will never be a perfect time.”