Rep. Mike Simpson will go vulture hunting when he returns to Capitol Hill this week. Simpson sees shadows circling over the Idaho National Laboratory after Sen. Larry Craig's announcement Saturday he would resign his seat.
"I'm hearing other labs are trying to scavenge projects from the INL," Simpson said Saturday. "There's competition between these labs, always has been, and we've fought to make INL the strong lab that it is."
That effort will be tougher with the departure of Craig, by far the most experienced member of the four-man, all-GOP Idaho delegation. Craig's departure means the loss of his influential voice on the federal bureaucracy and federal lands policies — and winning favors from colleagues for Idaho.
In addition to the power of office, during 27 years in Congress, Craig built informal power based on relationships and expertise. "That's not something that belonged to Idaho," said former Idaho Sen. Jim McClure. "It belongs to Larry Craig, and it's a very personal thing. Nobody else automatically takes over."
On spending, Craig and Simpson have worked closely on the two appropriations committees. Now, Simpson will be alone in fighting for $745 million Craig has tucked into 2008 spending bills.
"The partnership has worked great for Idaho," Simpson said. "It's gonna be a loss. It's gonna be a huge loss."
Simpson still has substantial clout on behalf of INL as a member of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Department of Energy. "I'll be calling DOE when I get back to Washington and say, ‘This is the rumor I'm hearing. and it better not be true.' Because they know that, ultimately, there's a price to pay."
Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Bill Sali also submit earmarks, which direct spending to specific projects. But Craig and Simpson are essential to the success of their colleagues because of their committee membership and participation in the conference committees that reconcile differences between House and Senate bills.
"Generally, we have somewhere near the same total number of dollars in both bills, but we might have substantially different projects," Simpson said. "What you do is go in and try to maintain the projects you want."
Marty Peterson, who for 15 years has lobbied for federal spending on behalf of the University of Idaho, is scrambling to shore up the U of I's requests, most of which were shepherded by Craig. Craig sits on six of the 12 spending subcommittees; Simpson on two.
"Larry Craig is not going to be at the table this time around," Peterson said. "If you don't have an Idaho senator at the conference table, and Mike Simpson isn't a member of the right subcommittee on the House side, you have no one to watch out for Idaho's interests."
Peterson said about $12 million of the $100 million the U of I gets in federal grants and contracts each year comes from earmarks. That's down from about $20 million several years ago. Last year, the U of I began adjusting its legislative strategy, recognizing that earmarks will become harder to get because of scrutiny of projects like Sen. Ted Stevens' "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska.
Earmarks good for Idaho
Still, the practice has been good to Idaho under Craig and Simpson. This year, Idaho delegation earmarks include $940,000 for research on a West Nile virus at Boise State, $5 million for the City of Rocks Back Country Byway and $9 million for the air traffic control tower at Boise airport. They also feature a $250,000 request for the Discovery Center of Idaho in Boise, $1 million for the Hagerman Fish Culture Experiment Station, and nearly $1.5 million for water or sewer projects in Hazelton, St. Anthony, Rexburg and Buhl.
For members of the Idaho delegation, the controversy over earmarks is a non-issue. They happily take credit for "wins," sending out press releases and posting online the list of earmarks.
POWERFUL VOICE FOR THE WEST
But Craig's departure is about more than money. He is a powerful voice for the mining, timber, ranching and energy industries. His departure will silence his opposition to mining reform, cuts in public land grazing, dam breaching and wilderness.
McClure, who served 24 years in Congress and was Craig's Senate predecessor, said Craig's impact on public lands is his most important legacy: "He has been effective."
Whoever Gov. Butch Otter appoints may share Craig's ideology and even his fervor, said Greg Cawley, a public lands expert and political scientist at the University of Wyoming. But he won't have Craig's clout. "They're going to be a newcomer," Cawley said. "They're not going to have any power."
Power doesn't come just from seniority or good committee assignments, he said. It's the indirect advantages of tenure in Congress that made Craig important for the West beyond Idaho. "Sen. Craig has been there enough years so that he has a whole series of personal contacts with folks," Cawley said. "He's done favors for folks and they've done favors for him. All that goes away."
Craig fought to keep Idaho in control of its water. He opposed national initiatives to lock up public lands and water through wilderness and wild-and-scenic river designations. "He has consistently defended Idaho's natural resources against out-of-state interests and has effectively represented the interests of Idaho's family farm and ranching communities, thereby helping Idaho's multibillion-dollar agricultural economy continue to flourish," said Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association.
At oddS with environmentalists
Craig is often at odds with environmentalists. "Sen. Craig has been a very effective representative for the interests he cares about," said Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League. "Generally speaking, that hasn't been (ICL). It's not an accident that the entire time he's been in office we have not been able to pass a bill to protect (Idaho) wilderness."
With Craig gone, chances improve for passage of two wilderness bills sponsored by Idaho Republicans. Simpson's bill covering the Boulder-White Cloud mountains would protect 300,000 acres as wilderness and give public land and money to local governments. Crapo's Owyhee Initiative would protect 500,000 acres as wilderness and help Owyhee County ranchers.
Finally, Craig's reach extended to the routine services citizens expect from their government. That includes intervening in regulatory disputes; military, health and Social Security benefits; and immigration and passport cases.
The U of I's Peterson said Craig was the man to call for immigration problems for faculty and students, or when a researcher got a hard time from a bureaucrat overseeing a federal grant.
"We call Sen. Craig, and they help us iron it out," Peterson said, "just like they do for the lady who's having problems with her Social Security check."
Former Sen. McClure said Craig has real clout over federal agencies. "He is uniquely capable of affecting bureaucratic positions as well as the law," said McClure. "Bureaucrats are subject to persuasion, and somebody who's in a position to affect the law or their appropriations is listened to more carefully than somebody who is not."
Dan Popkey: 377-6438