Light Bulb: jMint’s finest hour

The State, Bright: Jim DeMint’s finest hour, By LEE BRIGHT – Guest Columnist

Sen. Jim DeMint has weathered incessant fire over the past few weeks for taking a stand entirely consistent with his stated principles: He refuses to engage in the political game of favor-trading just to look good at home. This is his finest hour.

The issue at hand is an earmark for a study on the efficacy of dredging the Port of Charleston. Sen. DeMint simply refuses to beg the Democrats in control of the appropriations process for the goody, and the Democrats therefore refuse to put it in the bag.

We learn three things from this sequence of events. First, we learn that Democrats play games with appropriations, but I assure you that such games are not a partisan affair. Second, we learn that Jim DeMint does not play games but stands on principle even when it hurts; actually that is the only measure of principle. Third, we learn that erstwhile “conservatives” right here at home suddenly contract amnesia when rhetoric bumps into desire.

We all know about earmarks. They direct agencies to spend money on specific items in specific places. They exist so that the politicians who get them into a spending bill can go home and crow about “getting things done” for their constituents. They usually do that in front of cameras and with an oversized check in their hands.

Consider some of the political payoffs from the stimulus bill: $554,000 to replace windows in a visitors center at Mount St. Helen’s, which has not been open for three years; $62 million for a train that runs to the two stadiums where the Pirates and Steelers play as well as a casino next to them; $1.9 million to send researchers abroad to photograph ants. And the list goes on.

Now, I readily agree that dredging the Charleston Port does not equate to photographing ants. I also agree that the Port of Charleston is a vital component in the economic engine of both South Carolina and America itself.

The question then becomes, if we all know that it is so important, why does it take a gift from politicians to get it funded? Well, let us look at what else lies in the appropriations bill that would include the Port of Charleston.

The bill that covers the Army Corps of Engineers that would do the dredging study came out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its Energy and Water Subcommittee. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, it included $1.2 million for carbon sequestration research at Brown University (with an endowment of $2.04 billion, Brown could surely afford its own research); $500,000 for LED streetlights in Los Angeles; $300,000 for an urban wind demonstration project in New York. With these funds, the city of New York will “place, test and note the barriers wind turbines face in urban areas.” Some of these barriers are called skyscrapers.

The problem, of course, is that in order for Sen. DeMint to win approval for an earmark for the Port of Charleston, he would have to vote for these insults to the taxpayers.

That is because the Corps of Engineers does not receive its money and then apply it to its priorities. The only way for the corps to spend money on projects like this is for Congress to earmark it. Engineers, in other words, have their priorities set by politicians. Why not? They think that they can “fix” health care too. We have an agency in South Carolina that used to operate in this manner: The Department of Transportation used to build roads and fix bridges and put up red lights largely based upon what politician asked for them.

Four years ago, a Legislative Audit Council review and subsequent hearings chaired by Sen. Larry Grooms uncovered the political influence at the Transportation Department and the fact that road-building decisions reflected influence and not engineering. Sen. Greg Ryberg led the effort to reform the agency, and the legislation passed in 2007 requires that engineers prioritize projects based upon objective criteria such as traffic counts and road conditions.

The Congress should take a page from our book and let the corps do its work based upon real priorities and not political pressure. Until it does, I applaud Jim DeMint for refusing to play in the sandbox of corruption.

Mr. Bright represents Spartanburg County in the state Senate.