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George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter now have something in common. Congress has slapped down both presidents over costly water projects.
When Carter took office, he cut out of the federal budget a “hit list” of 19 water projects that he deemed wasteful pork-barrel spending. There are fewer things dearer to the lawmakers’ hearts than water projects. Carter was ultimately forced to accept most of them, but the bad start with Congress dogged him the rest of his term.
Bush, who didn’t veto anything his first five years in office, now issues veto threats almost daily. One of those threats he made good on was a $23.2 billion water-projects bill. He thought the bill wasteful and pork-filled and, like Carter, he was right on principle but wrong on the politics. Congress just loves water projects.
While the Republicans stood with him on his four vetoes to date, they deserted him in droves on the water projects. The Senate overrode his veto, 79-14, and the House, 361-54. Carter would understand.
The question is: Does this represent an erosion of the president’s influence as his term winds down? And the answer is: You can’t tell from this particular bill.
The bill only authorized the projects; it doesn’t fund them. The actual money comes in separate spending bills. The Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for water projects, has a $58 billion backlog and only about $2 billion a year to complete projects, meaning many of the projects may never be built.
The real tests will come shortly. The Republicans were able to sustain Bush’s veto of a children’s health insurance bill, but Congress is ready to come back for a second try, making enough changes to the politically popular measure to perhaps attract GOP moderates.
Similarly, Bush has threatened to veto a $151 billion health, education and labor bill and a $105.6 billion transportation and housing measure, both of which have a fair measure of bipartisan support.
Bush would have more credibility if he had used his veto during his first term instead of letting the then-Republican-run Congress spend what it liked. And in contrast to the president’s newfound parsimony on domestic spending, he continues to spend lavishly on defense and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Democrats are beginning to dwell on the contrast to score political points, making swing Republicans uneasy.
As the sports announcers say, “We’ve got ourselves a ball game.”