After seven years of acrimonious divides, Congress has finally reached an agreement on a critical water resources bill for Louisiana. The only thing standing in the way is the White House.
U.S. Rep Richard Baker was stuck reviewing mark-ups in the Financial Services Committee, which isn't as hellish as it sounds for the wonkish Republican from Baton Rouge. He prides himself on being a stickler for details, garnering a solid reputation on the Hill for knowing the intricacies of even the most complex of policies. As he poured through all of the amendments and riders being considering by the committee, word arrived from his office that he had been summoned on an entirely different matter that demanded his immediate attention.
Baker knew instantaneously what the game was; he was expecting the news. Whether he relished it or not, the quiet-spoken congressman was at the epicenter of a historic $21 billion water resources bill for Louisiana and other states. But he was only half of a complicated equation. Trent Lott, former GOP majority leader and hard-charging senator from Pascagoula, Miss., was the other half.
For his part, Lott wanted a freshwater diversion project for the Mississippi Sound to benefit oyster farmers in his state ' and he was willing to play hardball to get it. Not only did Lott want Louisiana to pay for a large part of the project, he also wanted to use water from Lake Pontchartrain, which had several environmental drawbacks for the lake. If he didn't get his way, Lott was also threatening to block money aimed at helping Louisiana with its coastal erosion dilemma.
It's been seven years of bitter infighting since Congress endorsed a Water Resources Development Act, putting communities like Lafitte, Montegut and Mouton Cove on hold, keeping from them critical water-control projects. Baker didn't want to serve in another Congress that was willing to squander such opportunity, and he was prepared to stare down Lott to help set a policy milestone. "A compromise had been reached on everything else, and now it came down to this," recalls Baker, a member of the special conference committee charged with drafting a final version of WRDA.
Upon hearing the deal was back in play and Lott was ready to negotiate, Baker rushed from the committee hearing and put his staff into overdrive, working well into the night of Thursday, July 26. By the time the sun came up the following morning, a deal had been struck between Lott and Baker: Louisiana will proceed with the diversion project using water from the Mississippi River at Violet in St. Bernard Parish. If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finds the option unfeasible, the Lake Pontchartrain alternative would come back to the table. "We both gave on this," Baker says, "and this option will help both states in the long run."
Everyone else in Congress fell in line, giving overwhelming approval to the WRDA measure, the largest bill of its kind in American history. The House voted 381-40 to endorse the compromise last week.
As a result, for the first time this decade, Congress had agreed to major water resources funding for items like the Illinois Waterways System and Florida Everglades. Back home in Louisiana, officials in the Bayou Parish Region were cheering the long-awaited authorization of Morganza-to-the-Gulf, a 72-mile hurricane-protection system meant to protect the Terrebonne-Lafourche region. In fact, the entire coastline, from Plaquemines to Cameron, benefits from the 16 other coastal restoration projects authorized under the Louisiana Coastal Area study in WRDA.
But the jubilation was cut short as rumors circulated that the White House would once again oppose the WRDA bill. In April, White House documents were leaked urging the deletion of Morganza from WRDA, citing environmental concerns about the levee's impact on area wetlands. President Bush had also previously asked Congress to decrease the overall fiscal impact of the legislation and delete other "unacceptable provisions," but lawmakers have stood strong.
In a letter sent to the bill's authors last week, Rob Portman, director of the administration's Office of Management and Budget, and John Paul Woodley, assistant secretary of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, confirmed that President Bush would indeed veto the legislation, no matter how Congress acts. "This is not how most Americans would expect their representatives in Washington to reach agreement, especially when it is their tax dollars that are being spent," they wrote. Due in part to the president's veto threat, the Senate tabled the legislation until its members return from their traditional August vacation.
The veto news seemed to shock even the most diehard Republicans in Louisiana's delegation, many of whom, like Baker, plan to oppose the White House's plans for a veto. Still, for anyone tuned in to the issue, two years worth of complaints from the White House were hard to miss. "I am stunned by the president's WRDA veto threat," said Sen. David Vitter of Metairie in a prepared statement. "And I have one basic response: I will enthusiastically work to override his veto." Others argued that President Bush was overlooking the human element of WRDA. "By saying no to Morganza, the president is ignoring the 120,000 Americans in Terrebonne and south Lafourche who currently have no defense against storms and are like sitting ducks in the path of the next killer hurricane," says Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville who also represents portions of Acadiana.
In a sign of the bill's importance to Louisiana, the oft-fractured Louisiana delegation united in a bipartisan stance against the president's veto threats, sending the president a letter last Thursday. "Since Congress last enacted a water resources bill in 2000, many of the projects authorized in H.R. 1495 have been pending for years, including the authorization of critical projects in Louisiana," the delegation wrote. "Furthermore, WRDA includes the historic creation of the Louisiana Coastal Area, a vital and comprehensive program for the restoration of our coast. We stand united behind H.R. 1495, and will support any efforts to override a veto of this important legislation."
While the overwhelming House vote from last week could alone be considered veto-proof, pundits and analysts expect President Bush to take his time in vetoing the legislation, thus giving his staff more time to lean on lawmakers to see things his way ' if that's even possible. A two-thirds vote in each body would be needed for a veto override, but Republicans eager to please could change face once the president officially acts.
While President Bush's concerns are clear, Baker says the commander-in-chief should remember that WRDA has been seven years in the making. If President Bush had worked more diligently on passing a WRDA bill earlier in his administration, the total sum of this landmark legislation might not be as large. "I can understand the fiscal concerns of the White House," Baker says, "but I think it's important for them to consider that because of the long time it's taken to pass this bill, it's really three WRDA bills in one."