TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - Nowhere has the fervor to cut
government down to size been more dramatically on display than in the
Republicans have seized control of statehouses across the
traditional battleground region, where they’ve slashed budgets with a
vengeance. Their counterparts in Congress have waged war with Democrats over
federal spending, led by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, architect of
blueprints that renounce “earmarks” for local projects and even target
But there’s a 94,000-square-mile exception to the
Republicans’ crusade to starve the federal beast: the Great Lakes.
For all their indignation about government overreach,
Republicans in the eight-state region are matching Democrats’ enthusiasm for
an array of federal programs benefiting the inland seas, from dredging
harbors to controlling invasive predators like the fish-killing sea lamprey.
When a House subcommittee this summer tried to cut 80 percent
of President Barack Obama’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which has
pumped $1.3 billion into 1,700 grants for cleanups and research since 2010,
alarmed Republican freshman David Joyce of Ohio quickly weighed in to get
most of next year’s money restored. A bipartisan parade from neighboring
states is now backing his push to get the rest of the money or even increase
Where the Great Lakes are concerned, party politics really
does stop at the water’s edge.
It’s a marriage of convenience, explained partly by the
lakes’ equal importance to the economy and the environment. They supply the
drinking needs of more than 30 million people, support 1.5 million jobs and
generate $62 billion in wages annually. They’re also home to more than 3,500
plant and animal species.
More fundamentally, the vast lakes are cultural icons,
inspiring poetry such as Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” and countless
memories of fishing with grandpa or camping on the beach.
“There’s just something about the Great Lakes that’s part of
our DNA, I think,” said Rep. Candice Miller, a Republican from suburban
Detroit. “It’s hard to explain. It’s about our way of life.”
In Congress, vote-rich states such as Illinois and Ohio,
along with neighboring Pennsylvania and New York, pack considerable punch
when they stick together.
Other clean-water programs lacking such an impassioned
constituency haven’t fared as well. Federal funds that provide loans for
drinking water and sewage treatment improvements also were cut 80 percent.
No one has come to their rescue.
“The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is among the most
fiercely defended programs in the country,” said Andy Buchsbaum, regional
director of the National Wildlife Federation. “The last two years, Congress
has given it the exact level of funding the president called for in his
budget. That’s almost unheard of, given the partisan toxicity right now.”
Even Republicans who were elected with tea party backing -
Reps. Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble of Wisconsin and Dan Benishek of Michigan
among them - protect the program. The irony isn’t lost on some
"It looks like a lot of so-called conservative Republicans
have their sacred cows,” said Jack Hoogendyk, a tea party activist and
former Michigan state legislator who ran unsuccessfully for Congress.
If he were elected, Hoogendyk said, he’d vote against the
Great Lakes program.
“I suppose I’d be out of a job two years later,” he admitted.
President Richard Nixon signed the initial Great Lakes Water
Quality Agreement with Canada in 1972, when polluted Lake Erie had been
declared biologically dead.
Despite some progress, scientists warn that pollution has
brought the lakes near “tipping points” of irreversible damage. Lake Huron’s
once-thriving salmon fishery has all but disappeared.
President George W. Bush signed cleanup legislation but
provided little money. Obama requested ample funding.
The federal grants go to government agencies, nonprofits,
Indian tribes and universities. They’ve restored wildlife habitat, advanced
cleanups of river mouths fouled with PCBs and strengthened defenses against
the dreaded Asian carp.
The congressional supporters are pushing the program this
fall even as conservatives gear up for another clash with Obama over
spending. Thirty-eight members of Congress have endorsed a request for $300
million for 2014. Joyce is seeking $475 million.
The program’s popularity with industry helps give Republicans
political cover. In a region beset with the collapse of its manufacturing
backbone, the lakes are essential to building a “blue economy” based on
abundant water, said Ed Wolking of the Detroit Regional Chamber.
Duffy, a second-term conservative, said he sees no
inconsistency in supporting the lake funding while voting to slash trillions
in spending elsewhere.
“This is a national treasure, so national money should go to
it,” said Duffy, who grew up near Lake Superior.