Great Lakes program inspires rare bipartisanship

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Nowhere has the fervor to cut government down to size been more dramatically on display than in the industrial Midwest.

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 Social Security.

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 it.

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. With nearly one-fifth of all fresh water on the earth’s surface, 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 purists who contend that such a huge federal expense shouldn’t be immune.

“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.

The region’s devotion to the lakes hasn’t stopped people from abusing them, from overfishing to treating them as a dumping ground for municipal sewage and industrial wastes. Ballast water from cargo ships has unleashed invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels.

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 in recent years.

President George W. Bush signed cleanup legislation but provided little money. Obama endorsed the strategy and 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, strengthened defenses against a dreaded Asian carp attack and backed research of toxic algae blooms.

The congressional supporters are pushing the program this fall even as conservatives gear up for another clash with Obama over spending that could threaten a government shutdown. Thirty-eight members of Congress have signed a letter requesting $300 million for 2014. A bill introduced by Joyce calls for $475 million.

This is not pork-barrel spending, backers insist. It’s based on science and getting results, said Todd Ambs, director of a coalition of pro-lake advocacy groups.

“Cutting funding just means you’ll pay more later because these things are going to get worse the longer you wait,” Ambs said.

The program’s popularity with industry helps give Republicans political cover. A group representing about 40 chambers of commerce sent a protest letter when the House subcommittee cut funding in July.

In a region beset with the collapse of its manufacturing backbone, the lakes are essential to building a “blue economy” based on abundant water and a higher quality of life, said Ed Wolking of the Detroit Regional Chamber. Any politician would think twice about being seen as hindering that goal.

Duffy, a second-term conservative, said he sees no inconsistency in supporting the lake funding while voting to kill Obamacare and slash trillions in spending elsewhere.

“The lakes don’t have state or district boundaries,” said Duffy, who grew up near Lake Superior. “This is a national treasure, so national money should go to it.”

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