GOP Fumbles by Overriding Bush's Water Bill Veto

Just as the hapless Washington Redskins football team has squandered gridiron victories in the final minutes of several games this season, Republican lawmakers in Washington recently fumbled another major opportunity to score points with taxpayers. GOP members of Congress largely sided with logrolling Democrats in overriding President Bush’s veto of the wasteful Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), ending the White House’s winning streak of fiscal-policy vetoes at a pitiful two.

Few areas of public works can match federal flood control and navigation initiatives for politically motivated policymaking. Over the last several years, numerous independent entities such as the U.S. Army Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office and the National Academy of Sciences have found that the Army Corps of Engineers has manipulated data to justify economically dubious projects—projects often championed by politically powerful members of Congress.

The WRDA legislation that cleared Congress does nothing to prioritize the Corps’ existing $58 billion backlog of projects nor does it significantly strengthen cost-sharing provisions with local entities or peer-review processes. As a result, WRDA perpetuates funding for items such as deepening the Port of Iberia, La., a project with near-zero net economic potential, rebuilding a lock and dam system on the Upper Mississippi region where barge traffic has been declining for decades and “renourishing” beaches with sand in New Jersey, Virginia, Florida and other areas known primarily for wealthy vacation homes and tourist destinations.

WRDA’s House and Senate proponents also displayed a curious form of arithmetic while settling on a final version of the bill. As an August “notice of veto” message from the White House to Congress sardonically put it, “It seems a $14 billion Senate bill went into a conference with the House’s $15 billion and somehow emerged costing approximately $20 billion.” Ultimately, however, WRDA weighed in at more than $23 billion, in part because $750 million in special-interest earmarks were “air dropped” when the two chambers met to hammer out a common bill. This practice of piling on earmarks during the conference process was supposedly banned under Senate rules.

Despite all this evidence against WRDA, the House overrode President Bush’s veto by a vote of 361 to 54. Just 54 Republicans—mostly members of the conservative Republican Study Committee—stood on principle and supported the President. On the Senate side, the story was largely the same. The upper chamber nixed Bush’s WRDA veto by a 79-to-14 vote, with only 12 Republicans holding the line. Two lone Democrats—Russell Feingold (Wis.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.)—joined that courageous dozen. [See for the full rollcall.]

Not only did Republicans huddle with the near-unanimity of tax-eating Democrats who supported WRDA, many of them actively sought its passage, despite the fact that earlier in 2007 nearly 150 GOP House members signed a written pledge to sustain the President’s veto decision on any spending bill. Such a large number of lawmakers agreeing to back President Bush should have been enough to muster the one-third of either house necessary to block any attempt to override a veto.

So what happened? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.) told the Washington Post that there were “differences of opinion among” members of his caucus over whether their promise to uphold a White House veto applied to WRDA. Unlike appropriations bills that directly spend tax dollars, WRDA is an authorization bill, which more closely resembles a binding commitment to undertake projects that will require separate funding legislation in the future.

To most taxpayers, however, this is a distinction without a difference. After all, the mammoth highway legislation passed in 2005, replete with $24 billion in parochial “earmarks,” was an authorization bill, too. Contained within its entrails was the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska that became political fodder for campaign-trail Democrats promising to change the culture of corrupt pork-barrel spending that had gripped the Capitol.

Fast forward to last week, when none other than Alaska GOP Rep. Don Young  shamelessly told his colleagues, “Let’s override the President. Let’s do something right for America.” Earlier this year, media reports revealed that Young was among several officials subjected to an ongoing Alaska federal corruption investigation.

Like a long-slumbering giant suddenly awakened amongst tiny tormenters, President Bush recently opened his eyes to the power his veto pen can have against anti-taxpayer impulses from hundreds of lawmakers. If only the President’s epiphany could have happened earlier in his term, when taxpayer travesties such as the GOP-backed farm bill and highway bill landed on his desk.

Bush issued the first fiscal-policy veto of his tenure last spring over legislation to provide funding for the Iraq War that had been swelled with billions in congressional pork.  Last month, Bush vetoed an incredibly irresponsible bill to inflate the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) into a middle-class entitlement. The legislation was underwritten by a punitive tobacco tax increase. This problematic source, according to a Heritage Foundation estimate, could have required more than 20 million new smokers to pay sufficient taxes to keep SCHIP chugging along. Both these vetoes (along with two others having to do with stem-cell research) survived congressional attempts to override them, leading to last week’s anticlimactic showdown.

With the WRDA veto, Republicans had the chance to set themselves apart from the unseemly deal-making with tax dollars that Americans despise. Instead, three out of four of them chose business as usual.  With more blunders like these, the GOP will have as much chance of recapturing Congress as the Washington Redskins have in getting to the Super Bowl this season. If the President continues to play defense for taxpayers on spending, the rest of his Republican team should put more effort into backing up his plays. Their next opportunity will come with the Labor-HHS appropriations bill.