Bush Takes the High Road

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, May 22, 2008; 12:07 PM

Add another chapter to the ignominious history of the Bush-era Congress. After seven years of going belly up on such defining issues as the war in Iraq, torture and taxes, the House finally gets up the gumption to override President Bush on a major piece of legislation. And what is it? A pork-laden, subsidy-filled $307 billion giveaway piled high with election-year goodies for everyone.

Yesterday's farm bill override wasn't a rebellion against Bush. It was a massive expression of self-interest.

Oh, and Congress couldn't even do it right: A whole section of the 673-page bill never made it to the White House, so the bill Bush vetoed wasn't the one the House overrode. Congress will apparently have to do it all over again.

No wonder Congress's job-approval ratings are even lower than Bush's. (The latest Zogby poll has Bush at an all-time low of 23 percent, positively towering over Congress at 11 percent.)

The battle over the farm bill found Bush in the position of arguing against subsidies for millionaire farmers and agribusiness. A president who's added $3 trillion to the national debt took a firm stand for fiscal discipline.

But the battle was not really so much about policy differences as it was a reflection of the traditional tension between the legislative and executive branches. In Congress, a bill is likely to get a lot of votes if there's something in it for everyone. While Congress often finds itself caring mostly about the parts, it's the president's job to focus on the whole.

So Bush rises above politics to act presidential -- and that's when Congress shows some spine? That's what it takes for Republicans to leave his side and join forces with Democrats?

The only previous Bush veto override came in November, over a similarly goodie-laden (if much more modest) bill funding $23 billion worth of water projects. As Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post at the time: "The legislature has proved impotent in its efforts to challenge President Bush on such matters as the Iraq war and the waterboarding of prisoners. But the president learned an important lesson yesterday: Don't mess with lawmakers' pet projects."

The Coverage

Jonathan Weisman and Dan Morgan write in The Washington Post: "At midday, Bush vetoed the bill, declaring: 'Americans sent us to Washington to achieve results and be good stewards of their hard-earned taxpayer dollars. This bill violates that fundamental commitment.' Bush objected to subsidies for wealthy agribusinesses at a time of high food prices and record farm income.

"Hours later, the House voted 316 to 108 to override the veto, with 100 Republicans siding with 216 Democrats. The Senate voted last week, 81 to 15, to approve the farm bill. . . .

"The five-year measure continues and in some cases expands traditional farm subsidies, and it is stuffed with billions of dollars of new money for anti-hunger programs, conservation programs, fruit and vegetable growers, and the biofuels industry. Dairy farmers will get as much as $410 million more over 10 years to cover higher feed costs. House and Senate negotiators tucked in an annual authorization of $15 million to help 'geographically disadvantaged farmers' in Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

"The bill assures growers of basic crops such as wheat, cotton, corn and soybeans $5 billion a year in automatic payments, even if farm and food prices stay at record levels. And subsidies for the ethanol industry will decline only slightly, leaving largely intact support for the biofuel industry, which has been blamed for contributing to higher food prices.

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