Mike Needham
Conservative lawmakers must learn how to play small ball.

What do I mean by that? Simply put, when the House majority and Senate minority swing for the fence, their conservative stripes are on display. Look no further than the Republican's bold plan to reform and save Medicare and you to realize they understand their mission. Whether they're talking about repeal of Obamacare, reining in job-destroying regulation or overhauling our tax code to create jobs, it’s clear they get it on the big issues.

However, when called upon to play small ball, many seem to leave their conservative credentials on the bench. On the issues that don't headline the cable news or Drudge, the influence of big-government special interests are omnipresent, pushing for hand outs, and carve outs. And all too often, that influence wins over some otherwise solidly conservative Members of Congress.

Take last week’s House vote to restore $320 million of taxpayer money to an ineffective grant program. According to The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis (CDA), firefighter safety grants had “no impact on fire casualties.” The analysis was robust, looking at more than 10,000 fire departments between 1999 and 2006.

Simply put, the grants, which were used for purchasing firefighting equipment including vehicles and exercise equipment, have been proven ineffective at reducing the number of casualties. The program even awarded grants – for some reason – to ACORN, the organization notorious for voter fraud.

Wisely, H.R.2017, the Homeland Security Appropriations bill, reduced funding for the program. But despite the program’s ineffectiveness, 333 Representatives supported an amendment by Congressman Steve LaTourette (R-OH) to restore $320 million to the program. The wasteful amendment had the support of 147 Republicans, including some otherwise solid conservatives.

With many in Congress talking about cutting TRILLIONS of dollars, 3 out of 4 Representatives couldn’t accept cutting MILLIONS. This sends a disturbing message, especially considering $320 million is just 0.002 % of our national debt. This is the very essence of small ball, and only 87 lawmakers got it right.

If Congress can’t even identify wasteful programs such as this to cut, how do we expect to slash our deficit? Neglecting any penny right now is not acceptable. How will Congress tackle the difficult challenges like entitlements and energy subsidies?

But the small ball problem is about more than wasting money on ineffective programs, it’s about understanding the proper role of the federal government. Spending on firefighter grants is not only wasteful, but it also blurs (or completely ignores) the distinction made between federal and state governments.

At other times, the small ball issue is less about money and federalism, and more about the government intervening in the market and picking winners and losers. Take H.R.1380, a boondoggle of a bill designed to subsidize the production and use of natural gas vehicles. It has 187 co-sponsors, including more than 80 Republicans, again including some otherwise solid conservatives.

Again, this is small ball. No matter how exciting a technology may be or how much promise it may hold, the government should not be providing it special treatment. We’ve seen government intervention and preferential treatment fail time and again with ethanol, windmills and biofuels.

That alone should be enough to keep conservatives (or any commonsense individual, really) away from the bill. Unfortunately, there is more to the bill. Section 403 affirms that reducing greenhouse gases is a worthwhile policy goal for federal lawmakers. That is a recipe for big government, high energy prices and more unemployment.

To their credit, four lawmakers have withdrawn their support for the bill: Reps. Stevan Peace (R-NM), Todd Akin (R-MO), Tim Griffin (R-AR) and Glenn Thompson (R-PA). Others, like Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) and Raul Labrador (R-ID) have been fighting it from the beginning.

We need more principled leaders like this.

Make no mistake, we must get the big issues right and the House majority, especially, has shown a tremendous dedication to doing just that. However, consistently getting the small dollar issues wrong will not only undermine their objective, but also their credibility.

We are living in one of the most consequential periods in American history. Over the course of the next several years, the decisions made in Washington will either allow America to decline into a stagnant welfare state or save the American Dream of a dynamic entrepreneurial society striving for exceptionalism. Cutting wasteful programs with no track record of results is common sense. Congress needs to start getting these votes right.


Mike Needham

Mike Needham is the Chief Executive Officer of Heritage Action for America, a grassroots advocacy organization dedicated to advancing legislation that promotes freedom, opportunity and prosperity for all Americans.