Of Mice and Myth

The Speaker’s Lobby: Of Mice and Myth

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

11 July 2009

I wonder if many Americans know that $16 million from the massive economic stimulus package approved by Congress this year will benefit the Chinook salmon. Or the steelhead trout. Or the smelt, a small freshwater fish found in the Pacific Ocean.

And that’s to say nothing of the residual benefit tax dollars will provide the California clapper rail, an endangered subspecies found in the San Francisco Bay area.

That’s because Republican lawmakers outraged about the stimulus bill ignored these creatures. Instead, they focused on the salt marsh harvest mouse.

The effort drove the name recognition of the salt marsh harvest mouse to levels rivaling other popular culture critters like Jerry of Tom and Jerry fame, Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little. 

Many Republican lawmakers are crowing that the stimulus bill funds habitat restoration projects at the American Canyon Salt Pond and the San Francisco South Salt Pond in California. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just released a list of 50 projects that would be paid for by the stimulus bill.

And Republicans spied a political opening.

The projects were designed to directly benefit the Chinook salmon, the steelhead trout and the smelt. Wildlife engineers would help these species by altering the water flow at these sites and to creating a more hospitable habitat.

The California clapper rail happens to live there, too. And so does the salt marsh harvest mouse. But House Republicans elected to convert the mouse into the poster child of all they see wrong with the Democratic party and the spending priorities of the stimulus package.

The salt marsh harvest mouse found its image officially emblazoned on a poster at Thursday’s press briefing by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH). Next to Boehner’s lectern stood an easel with a poster board turned backward. Moments before Boehner entered, an aide flipped the poster board so reporters could see the image of the mouse. As the television cameras focused to capture a shot, the press corps cooed with an “awwwwww” at the cute little mouse Boehner transfigured into a GOP shibboleth.

“Sixteen million dollars in the stimulus bill was appropriated to take care of the salt marsh harvest mouse,” Boehner thundered. He also declared that the money was an “earmark” for the mouse.

His spokesman, Michael Steel said the stimulus bill “hasn’t created American jobs, but has helped a furry rodent in San Francisco.”

Later, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) went further. King’s office emailed out a press release titled “Pelosi’s Mouse Gets Taxpayer Funded Cheese.” King also declared it “Nancy Pelosi’s famous pet project.”

Republicans enjoyed a field mouse day.

The only problem is that GOP assertions about the mouse are myths.

This started in February when the House was poised to approve the nearly 1,100-page, $787 billion stimulus bill. Republicans started shouting about “Pelosi’s earmarked mouse.” And many reporters went with the story. Even though the salt marsh harvest mouse isn’t mentioned in the legislation.

At the time, Republicans banked on the fact that reporters, like many Members of Congress, don’t read the bills either. And reporters, who are pressed for time, are often susceptible to spin and talking points when crashing on a deadline to file their story.

So let’s truth squad the Republican assertions about the mouse.

First, Boehner asserted that “Sixteen million dollars in the stimulus bill was appropriated to take care of the salt marsh harvest mouse.”

First, the $16 million Boehner refers to is the price tag for both habitat restoration projects. The American Canyon Salt Pond gets $8.4 million. The San Francisco South Salt Pond receives $7.6. But is it targeted for the mouse? Not specifically, says Perry Gayaldo, Deputy Director of the NOAA Restoration Center. He says NOAA’s primary focus is improving the hydrology of these sites for the steelhead trout, Chinook salmon and smelt.

“These are the resources that NOAA identifies that we are concerned with,” Gayaldo said. “But there are going to be other ancillary creatures that benefit.”

That’s where the mouse comes in. To say nothing of the California clapper rail which also hangs out there.

Frankly, I think the steelhead trout, Chinook salmon and smelt should fire their press agents for the mouse getting all of the attention.

Secondly, Boehner described the mouse money as an “earmark.” Not exactly. First of all, no one on Capitol Hill agrees on what composes an earmark. But one of the most universally accepted definitions is a line in a bill that specifically directs money to be spent on a given project. Now granted, money from the stimulus bill could have been targeted for the American Canyon Salt Pond and San Francisco South Salt Pond. But there is nothing concrete in the measure about directing money for the mouse. And both projects were part of a competitive bidding process.

Third, Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel said the bill “helped a furry rodent in San Francisco.” And Steve King referred to the critter as “Pelosi’s mouse.” This may just be rhetorical distraction. Again, most Americans have no idea specifically where these two habitat restoration sites are located. But they know that Pelosi represents San Francisco. And one of the projects even bears the name “San Francisco.” Only problem, neither location is in the Speaker’s district. The American Canyon Salt Pond is in the district represented by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA). The San Francisco South Salt Pond is represented by Reps. Mike Honda (D-CA) and Pete Stark (D-CA).

The final Republican suggestion is that the money doesn’t “stimulate” the economy because it doesn’t create jobs. The jury is still out on that supposition, mainly because nothing has happened yet. But NOAA’s Perry Gayaldo says restoring the two habitats will spur employment later this year. First, Gayaldo argues the restoration is necessary because both sites were used for years to produce salt. After years of production, the habitats aren’t fit for wildlife. He says changing the landscape and hydrology requires teams of workers.

“You need engineers to figure out where to break down the levies to get the water in,” Gayaldo said. “You need fishery biologists to help determine what the habitat needs to look like.”

Gayaldo adds that botanists will be employed to decide what sort of vegetation is necessary. And they’ll need to hire heavy equipment operators to run shovels and backhoes to move earth. Crane operators are required to lift and position gigantic steel culverts to contour the water flow.

“Focusing on the mouse is really missing the bigger picture,” said Gayaldo.

But Gayaldo added that interest in the mouse increased public awareness of conservation projects.

“It inspires dialogue,” Gayaldo said. “In another situation, maybe they can actually find something that’s worthy of scrutiny.”

In a Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare wrote that “Not a mouse shall disturb this hallowed house.”

Well, a mouse certainly disturbed the House of Representatives. And to hear Perry Gayaldo tell it, the focus on the mouse is ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room.

– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.