Congressional Republicans have tried hard this year to reclaim the GOP's traditional "brand" as the party of fiscal responsibility. They're about to face a test that will show whether their rhetoric matches reality.
President Bush's veto of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) on Friday puts him at odds with a majority of Republicans on Capitol Hill. And unlike other legislation that Bush has sent back to Congress, the president actually faces the prospect of having a bipartisan majority throw his veto back in his face.
Only in Washington can lawmakers sit down to negotiate two bills with price tags of $14 billion and $15 billion and come up with a "compromise" costing $23 billion. Washington Examiner columnist Tim Carney recently wrote that "this bill's growth behind closed doors certainly defies the civics-textbook explanation of how a bill becomes a law."
In fact, the bill defies all logic. Bush's original request came in at $4.9 billion, but it quickly ballooned as members of both parties loaded it with pork for their districts. Ultimately, virtually everyone had a goody or 10 in the bill, and it won overwhelming approval: passing the House on a 381-40 vote and the Senate by an 81-12 margin.
Despite the lopsided support for the bill, Bush made a bold move in vetoing it. "Americans sent us to Washington to achieve results and be good stewards of their hard-earned taxpayer dollars," Bush said in a statement Friday. "This bill violates that fundamental commitment."
In addition to citing the bill's $23 billion price tag, Bush criticized it for authorizing more than 900 projects and programs which, he said, would exacerbate the enormous backlog of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' construction projects. The White House said the bill would wind up costing taxpayers an additional $38 billion.
While lawmakers worked overtime in stuffing this Christmas stocking of a bill, they never got around to setting priorities. Without direction, the Corps' work on hurricane protection for New Orleans, flood control in Sacramento and restoration of the Everglades would be jeopardized to fund projects of lesser importance -- such as $20 million for sewer overflow infrastructure in Atchison, Kan.; $15 million for wastewater infrastructure in Willmar, Minn.; and $5 million for drinking water infrastructure for the village of Kyrias-Joel, N.Y., according to The Heritage Foundation's Nicola Moore and Alison Acosta Fraser.
"A prime example of legislation run amok," Moore and Fraser wrote in their analysis of the bill. They said the legislation would be a boon for beach-front property owners. "While most projects in the Army Corps of Engineers budget undergo a thorough cost-benefit analysis," they wrote, "many of the earmarks were won by lobbyists working on behalf of special interests representing beach-front property owners."
Take beach dredging, for example. It's often sold as environmental restoration but critics say it's both wasteful and environmentally damaging. The dredge lobby secured a provision in WRDA to give the Corps' control over so-called "beach nourishment" projects. Despite the pretty prose, such projects face vigorous opposition from beachgoers because they have degraded or destroyed the ecology of vast stretches of coast, in some cases making the shoreline worthless for fishing, surfing and diving.
The significance of this veto goes beyond the limited issue of the federal government's role in dredging beaches. It represents the president's decision to lay down a marker for spending battles to come in the weeks ahead. Like it or not, SCHIP expansion is in many ways a battle over health care spending and the size and scope of government. The same goes for the 12 appropriations bills that are $23 billion over Bush's requested level.
By picking a fight with Congress, Bush has strengthened his credentials among conservatives who have longed for the White House to take an aggressive stand against fiscal irresponsibility. But he has his work cut out for him if he's to convince members of Congress to sustain this veto.
Despite the high cost of the bill and its insane amount of pet projects, even staunch conservatives such as Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) have gone to great lengths to defend the measure. "I am a staunch fiscal conservative," Inhofe wrote to the Oklahoman, "but I am not apologetic about increased spending on our nation's defense and infrastructure needs."
Conservatives can support our nation's defense and infrastructure needs without countenancing the bloated, undisciplined spending exemplified by the Water Resources Development Act. Here's hoping fiscally responsible lawmakers can summon the spine to spurn this pork-packed monstrosity.
Robert B. Bluey is director of the Center for Media and Public Policy
First appeared in Townhall.com