It has been a busy first year in Congress for Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan. Elected in November 2014, the former state Natural Resources Commissioner and Attorney General took office in January in the new Republican-controlled Congress.
Sullivan has an increasing role in foreign policy with his military background — he still serves in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve — and his U.S. State Department experience, where he was Assistant Secretary of State for Economic, Energy, and Business from 2006-09.
As a freshman, Sullivan is 100th in Senate seniority, but he did well last spring in his initial committee assignments and landed all four of his priorities: Commerce, an important committee for fisheries (Sullivan is one or two freshmen on the committee); Environment and Public Works, Armed Services, and Veterans’ Affairs.
On Armed Services, Sullivan has already formed a close relationship with chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and has been tasked with coordinating the committee’s oversight of Pacific region defense issues, to which Sullivan has added an emphasis on the Arctic.
In an extended interview with the Journal Dec. 22, Sullivan ticked off accomplishments of the Senate in 2015 under its new Republican leadership. He feels good about his own performance there, too.
“My focus is on the themes I campaigned on. This is important because there is a lot of cynicism out there (about government) and people notice,” when an elected official doesn’t follow through on commitments, Sullivan said. “It breeds more cynicism.”
“With every vote I make I can point to something I campaigned on.”
Return (mostly) to regular order
What’s most important, Sullivan said, is that under new leadership the Senate is now functioning as it should, with bills and appropriation measures moving through committees where hearings are held and bill “markups” are done. Legislation then moves on to the Senate floor where amendments can be offered, and sometimes adopted.
Sullivan contrasted this to a non-functional Senate under Democratic leadership and its former Majority Leader, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, where few amendments were allowed on the floor and budget bills did not move through the normal process.
“In 2014, under Harry Reid, there were a total of 14 roll call votes on the Senate floor. That’s about one a month. In contrast, in 2015 there have been over 200 roll-call votes,” Sullivan said. “We’re now operating in regular order.”
Highlighting two issues, Sullivan said the enactment by Congress of a bipartisan five-year surface transportation bill was a significant accomplishment after years of stalemate and one-year extensions of the former program.
He gave credit to Alaska’s senior Sen. Lisa Murkowski, for leadership on the House-Senate conference committee on the transportation bill along with an education bill that took control of school curriculums away from the federal government and send it back to states and local school boards.
Among other bills, an amendment by Sullivan to a federal Human Trafficking measure gives states the ability to go after sex offenders if the U.S. Justice Department chooses not to. The senator’s interest in this came from his experience as Alaska’s attorney general where the Justice Department blocked the state in pursuing a high-profile case.
“This is about protecting people who are most vulnerable. It was my first accomplishment in the Senate, and it went on to pass the House,” Sullivan said.
There is actually more bipartisan action in the Senate than is commonly believed, he said. An example is the Senate’s vote approving the Keystone oil pipeline, a highly-charged energy issue, where one quarter of Democrats in the Senate voted with Republicans to approve the project before President Barack Obama vetoed it.
The vote to override the veto failed 62-37, a few votes short of the two-thirds needed to override a veto.
However, the old ways are not completely gone from the Senate. Sullivan said he voted against the federal spending bill, passed in late December, because of the less-than-transparent way it was handled, which was in a manner reminiscent of the Harry Reid era.
“Harry Reid, (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi, (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell and the White House made the final agreements behind closed doors on this 2,200-page, $1.8 trillion-dollar Omnibus Appropriations Act. We got this bill on Tuesday and were told we had to vote it on Friday,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan voted “no” on the bill, in protest.
“I dug my heels in,” he said. “There is a possibility that there are bad things for Alaska tucked into this bill, and we don’t know what there are.”
He cited an example of a last-minute, little-scrutinized 2014 bill that contained language making changes to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s minority contracting bill that were very adverse for Alaska Native corporations in that business.
Sullivan’s vote split the Alaska delegation on the spending bill. Murkowski and Rep. Don Young voted yes.
Before the end-of-year omnibus spending bill he voted against, Sullivan said the Senate’s performance in passing budget appropriation bills in an orderly process showed the process working as it should.
“We had 12 budget appropriation bills brought to the Senate floor and those were on a bipartisan basis,” Sullivan said.
However, the Senate Democrats filibustered every appropriations bill when brought to the floor, including three times against the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, a bill that Obama eventually vetoed Oct. 22.
“I don’t know what they were really after,” in the filibuster, Sullivan said, “other than to force a jam-up of bills at the end of the year.”
Congress rebuffed Obama’s veto by passing a virtually identical NDAA in November by veto-proof margins of 91-3 in the Senate and 370-58 in the House.
On the spending bill, Sullivan noted that many of his fellow freshman Republican senators voted against it, having campaigned against passing budgets in such a fashion, as well as several committee chairmen who were upset that their appropriations bills had been killed.
There were also more partisan bills that passed the Republican-led Senate, such as the repeal of Obamacare and bills dealing with intrusive new federal rules like Environmental Protection Agency’s Waters of the U.S and the new EPA rule on carbon emissions.
“The president will likely veto those, but we (the Senate Republicans) felt it was really important to make the case,” he said.
It is in foreign and military affairs that Sullivan feels he can contribute the most, taking advantage of his background in the U.S. State Department in the George W. Bush administration and his own military status as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.
Being in the reserves allows the senator to interact with troops when on periodic active duty, and this gives him a direct perspective on current issues uniformed military personnel deal with that would be difficult for any other senator.
The Senate leadership recognizes this value, leading to the request by McCain and Majority Leader McConnell that Sullivan help oversee the military realignment toward the Pacific. It is highly unusual for responsibilities like this to be given to a freshman senator.
It puts Sullivan in key meetings in the Pacific, however, including a one-on-one in Tokyo earlier in 2015 with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Sullivan used the occasion to pitch the Alaska LNG Project to Abe, and he found the prime minister surprisingly well-briefed on the effort.
He also brought up AK LNG at a press conference in Singapore May 28 at the Asia Security Summit as part of a delegation led by McCain and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., noting when he had a chance to speak that he mentioned the project had just that day received a key export permit from the Department of Energy.
Sullivan has also been active in jawboning U.S. Army officials to slow, or halt, the transfer of 2,600 troops from the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, or JBER, downsizing the unit to battalion-size.
He succeeded in getting an amendment on the defense spending bill requiring the Defense Department to develop an Arctic Operations Plan and got verbal assurances from the Army that troops would not be withdrawn until the plan was finished.
Army brass wasn’t happy about the amendment because operations plans are very detailed, requiring a threat assessment, and they take time, Sullivan said in the interview.
Sullivan’s argument for the plan, citing Russia’s Arctic military buildup, got a lot of attention from other senators, however, that rose above common parochial concerns whenever military troops are reduced from an area.
“They (Russia) have positioned four brigade-size combat teams and built 11 new airfields in the Arctic, as well as installing a sophisticated new air defense system and commissioning 40 new icebreakers, some of them nuclear. What are we doing? Squat, and at the same time we’re talking about withdrawing the only airborne combat brigade in the Pacific, one of six in the Army, and the only U.S. troops who are Arctic-trained,” Sullivan said.
“The good news is that many other members of the Armed Services Committee now recognize this.”
The issue is not yet settled. A critical test will come in February when the Army plans to take elements of the 4th BCT from JBER to Louisiana to participate in tests on its ability to operate as a smaller, battalion-sized unit, or essentially what would remain at JBER if the 2,600 troops were to leave. Sullivan plans to attend and observe the tests.
The senator agrees the Army needs to cut costs but trimming combat troops is not the way to do it, pointing to the military’s “tooth to tail” ratio. The U.S. military has the longest “tail,” or ratio of support to front-line personnel, of any of the world’s armed forces, and if reductions are made the “tail” should be looked at first, he said.
Meanwhile, another foreign policy issue Sullivan is watching closely, although it may now be beyond Congress’ ability to do anything, is the lifting of economic sanctions against Iran that is part of the recently-agreed nuclear accord.
Some senators have discussed possible legislation that would prevent at least the U.S. sanctions from lifting until the administration certifies that Iran is no longer a state sponsor of terrorism, in effect taking Iran off the list of nations that sponsor terrorism. Whether the idea will get traction isn’t known, however.
Sullivan is not a fan of the nuclear agreement, however, because it has already been shown that Iran has violated it with its tests of long-range missiles. President Obama was too quick to sign off on the deal without ways of ensuring compliance, the senator said.
An example he cited is that Iran basically self-inspects its nuclear facilities under the deal. There is no real independent inspection and verification.
What rankles Sullivan particularly is that Iran is being freed of sanctions while four U.S. citizens are still being held prisoner, and that Congress has been cut out of the loop on such an important foreign policy decision.
“There are a lot of Democrats who opposed this deal. It’s a bad precedent,” Sullivan said. “Through all of our nation’s history, all major foreign policy initiatives have been bipartisan and involving Congress,” through actions like ratification of treaties or formal declarations of war, Sullivan said.
The senator feels he has a stake in the matter because as a top State Department official in the Bush administration Sullivan was instrumental in knitting together an international coalition of nations on the economic sanctions that ultimately brought Iran to the bargaining table.
Much of what that accomplished is being lost by an agreement that is weak and difficult to enforce, Sullivan said.