The Baltimore County Republican put aside a well-established disdain for new government regulations to support a ban on double-deck trailers, which animal-rights groups say are inhumane. He said that, in this case, the prohibition is acceptable because the government already regulates vehicles.
Maryland is home to 79,100 horses, ponies and donkeys, and the industry supports some 6,300 jobs statewide, according to government figures from 2010. At least one-fifth of the state's horse population lives in Harris' Eastern Shore district, including 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom.
Animal-rights groups say double-deck trailers, in which animals are stacked atop each other, do not provide the 7 to 8 feet of clearance horses need to raise their heads, which they must do to maintain balance. The horses can fall and potentially break their legs or necks, advocates and some owners say.
"They have a tendency to slip, and as a result they can fall under another horse," said Nancy Dawn Ashway, who stables about 20 horses on her farm in St. Michaels and who travels around the country as a judge of horse shows. "The fact is it's unsafe for the animal no matter where they're going."
The measure has left Harris, a first-term lawmaker who sits on the House Transportation Committee, on the opposite side from fellow Republicans who say the proposed ban is onerous and duplicative. Rep. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, has sought to strike the provision because of the impact he says it will have on rodeos.
A Gardner spokeswoman said rodeo managers use modified trailers that give horses more room.
The bill "inadvertently attacks Western states and rodeo culture," said the spokeswoman, Rachel Boxer.
Cindy Schonholtz, a spokeswoman for the Colorado-based Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, said that banning double-deck trailers would put more standard trailers on highways. She also said rodeo cowboys configure the animals within the trailers so that larger horses have more head space.
"Our members safely transport horses," she said.
Animal-rights advocates say most of the trailers — even those modified for use in rodeos — provide at most 71 inches of height, less than the average 84-inch to 92-inch height of a horse. The height of an average house door is 84 inches.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has banned the use of double-deck trailers to transport horses bound for slaughter since the 1990s, and the agency recently strengthened its rules. Maryland and five other states already ban the use of the trailers to transport horses for any purpose.
But animal-rights advocates say farmers find ways around the federal regulation, that the USDA does not have the resources to enforce the ban, and that other industries in 44 states are not covered by any prohibition.
"If it's too inhumane to haul horses going to slaughter than why in the world would you let any horses be hauled in these things?" asked Chris Heyde, deputy director of government and legal affairs for the Animal Welfare Institute.
Congress and the White House lifted a ban on horse slaughter last year after a government report found the prohibition was causing owners to ship horses to Canada and Mexico for slaughter.
A nationwide ban on double-deck trailers has been proposed in Congress for years, championed by Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk. Harris said he picked up the issue after several breeders as well as transport associations contacted his office.
"Carrying an average-size horse in something less than 7 feet tall is not good for the animal," Harris said.
But the proposal runs counter to the long-standing position against new government regulations that Harris and many of his Republican colleagues in the House have espoused. Just this month, Harris held a hearing questioning Environmental Protection Agency oversight of natural gas production, for instance.
Harris said more regulation is valid in the case of horse trailers.
"We have plenty of regulations with regard to what trucks and other means of conveyance on a highway have to have," he said. "I think it's valid for us to say if you're going to convey these on federal highways you ought to use a means of conveyance that doesn't harm the animal."
Though the broad ban is included in the transportation bill, Harris said he is working on a compromise to allow the use of double-deck trailers for horses as long as they have more head room than most models do today. Heyde said he is skeptical that a taller double-deck trailer could fit under bridges.
The proposed prohibition is included in the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, a five-year, $260 billion bill to fund highway, bridge and transit projects. Republican leaders had hoped to pass the broader legislation Friday, but they have struggled to find support among their own caucus. Now the House is expected to vote on it after next week's congressional recess.
Violators would face a civil fine of up to $500 for each horse.
A similar proposal is expected to be included in a Senate version of the transportation bill.
It's not clear how pervasive is the use of the double-deck trailers. The USDA has taken 17 violators to court for violating its regulation on horses bound for slaughter, resulting in civil penalties of $750,550. The agency settled an additional 15 cases.