During the New Hampshire primary early in 1976, candidate Jimmy carter promised to curb the bulldozers of the Army Corps of Engineers.
"We ought to get the Army Corps of Engineers out of the dam-building business," he said. "I personally believe that we have built enough dams in this country and will be extremely reluctant as President to build any more."
This is the story of what happened to that campaign commitment after Carter became President and how it became entangled in traditional prok-barrel politics and relations between the White House and Capitol Hill.
A preliminary demolition list of public-works projects was prepared at the outset by two young staff members sympathetic to the arguments of the conservationists - Katherine Schirmer, who had worked for the late Sen. Philip A. Hart (D-Mich), and Katherine Fletcher, formerly with the Enbironmental Defense Fund.
Schirmer headed the Interior Department transition team and Fletcher worked with her. The team put together what Schirmer calls a "preliminary list" of projects under construction that the team felt should be halted.
The list, naming 61 projects, was published Jan. 1 and sent a shudder through the Corps of Engineers. No one on Capital Hill took it seriously.
After Carter's inauguration Jan. 20. Schirmer joined the White House Domestic Council Staff and brought Fletcher with her.
The Carter administration had a month to make its recommendations on the Ford budget. Since the water project deferrals would offset to some extent Carter's increases in his predecessor's spending program, there was strong pressure to have the list ready for Congress by Feb. 21.
Schirmer and Fletcher canvassed within the office of Management and Budget and the President's council on Environmental Quality to gather ammunition against the projects.
The found ready allies in bothe agencies, wher for years a handful of officials had been aquirreling away unfavorable economic and environmental data on every project.
OMB and CEQ analysts were given the job of finding projects that could be dropped from the Ford budget. White House aides say four criteria were used to compile the "hit list": adverse environmental impact; costs exceeding benefits; safety, and the amount of prior federal investment in each project.
While the OMB-CEQ review was under way, the White House received a letter that may have created some false hopes about how project cuts would be received on Capitol Hill. Signed by 74 senators and members of Congress, it supported a review of "environmentally and economically questionable projects" and asked for "a serious effort . . . to trim off the waste of tax dollars on unnecessary water projects."
Among the signers were Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) and five senators, all of whom would later complain or vote against Carter's initial move to eliminate projects.
On Thursday, Feb. 17, a meeting was held in the White House with Carter presiding. Present were Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus, Bureau of Reclamation officials, Defense Secretary Harold Brown, Army Secretary Clifford Alexander with the chief engineer. Lt. Gen. John Morris, and his deputy, Maj. Gen. Ernest Graves, OMB Director Bert Lance and White House aide Stuart Eizenstat.
Carter, according to one of those present, began by announcing he wanted the agencies to make a major review of all projects and send their findings to him so he could make a final decision on them by April 15.
Because he budget recommendations were going up that weekend, he said, he wanted to make public an interim list of projects with basic problems to illustrate the possible cuts.
The OMB-CEQ survey had turned up 35 projects as cancellation candidates. They were introduced for discussion, with the Corps of Engineers generals and reclamation officials seeing them for the first time.
On Friday, Feb. 18, the final list was complied. A paragraph was inserted in the Carter budget message with what the White House hopes would be an offsetting piece of fiscal good news: budget authority was being cut $268 million below the Ford funding request. The total savings achieved by halting the 18 projects was announced as $5.1 billion.
Two days later the "hit list" was enlarged to 19 with the addition of the $248 million Richard Russell Dam in Georgia.
The list also contains the $22 million dredging of the Atchfalaya River in Louisiana. The project calls for widening a 360-foot channel so that companies building 440-foot-wide oil drilling rigs can float them down to the Gulf of Mexico. One corporation, McDermott & Co., stands along with the oil companies buying the rigs.
Carter, in a later latter, was to describe the project as a use of federal funds "for the benefit of a very few private compaines."
Beginning Friday afternoon, February 18, the White House liaison team headed by Frank Moore tried in vain to reach senators and representatives affected by the cutbacks.
By Feb. 21, when the list was announced, the uproar was enormous. Legislators complained about not being consulted before the project cuts were made public. A few began to wonder if 1977 construction money, voted by Congress but not yet spent, would be held back - particularly on the 19 projects Carter recommended be halted.
"The Carter people didn't understand," one HIll aide said recently, "that a lot of political work has gone into geting projects authorized and funded. It is not something whipped up overnight. It required years geting local and state officials behind a project along with the congressional delegation."
To the public at large they may be pork-barrel projects. To environmentalists they are a danger.But for each district and each legislator, federal dams, waterways and lakes are important local signs of government involvement.
Under the budget impoundment act, Carter needs congressional approval before he can hold back the spending of 1977 funds or eliminate appropriation of 1978 money.
On Feb. 25, while Congress was still boiling, the White House staff met with Army engineers, reclamation officials and representatives of Agriculture's Soil Conservation Service (which has 700 watershed projects) to establish criteria for the major project review.
Environmental impact and safety were settled upon along with an economic finding that benefits would be larger than remaining costs.
In figuring cost, the current interest rate on borrowed money - 6 3/8 per cent - wa used. The rate, higher than that used when the projects were authroized - almost guaranteed costs would exceed benefits, particularly on big projects.
On Friday, March 4, the new cirteria were sent to Congress. The following Monday, Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.), chairman of the Appropriations Public Works Subcommittee, asked the corps for a list of porjects that the new interest rate would cause to fail the first screening test.
Stennis got his answer the next day. The list contained 38 projects, including the $1.4 billion Tennessee-Tombingbee Waterway through Alabama and Stennis' Mississippi and the $905 million Red River waterway that is a pet of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.).
The March list caused new concern on Capitol Hill and a meeting was arranged with the President to discuss where the administration was going.
A stormy session took place the afternoon of March 10. Carter remained firmer that the Senate and House members expected. Long was sarcastic. His Louisiana colleague, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D) got a hint from OMB Director Lance about the White House plan to defer 1977 money for a Louisiana dredging project on the list.
When Johnston got back to his office, he drafted an amendment to the public works employment bill then on the floor for debate. It said, in effect, that if the President tried to defer any 1977 money, Congress would defeate it.
Johnstons amendment set off an emotional floor debate from members angered at Carter's statements that day in the White House.
The Johnston amendment passed, 65 to 24. Senators called it a message to Carter to scale down his efforts to cut water projects.
It had a more immediate effect for Johnston's Louisiana project. The next day he received word from the Corps of Engineers that the dredging contract would be awarded March 18 as scheduled. Passage of the amendment, a corps official said later, ruled out any White House attempt to defer the contract award.
On March 11, Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) wrote Carter a letter of caution on the course he was taking on water projects.
The next day, Carter called Byrd to the White House. During their conversation, the West Virginian told the President that the Senate would defeat any effort to halt projects already approved, particularly if White House opposition relied on applying the new interest rate to call them uneconomic.
Byrd suggested, however, that Carter would have his way in developing tougher criteria for any new starts.
Carter told Byrd he was surprised by the strong congressional response and would consult before he made any final decisions.
On March 16, Carter sent a letter to Congress repeating he promise of consultation, but strongly defended the choices made in the original list of 19.
Carter complained that "exagerations of the number of projects to be delayed" were being made because of unofficial list being circulated.
The White House then clamped down on the corps and the Bureau of Reclamation Officials were told not to give out the names of projects that passed or failed to members of Congress or to the press. That information, they were told, was to come only from the White House.
With information from the corps and reclamation bureau's initial screening Moore's White House legislative team began briefing state delegations and individual members.
No member was told how many projects had failed the test, but word leaked from the corps on Friday that more than 70 were involved - and that White House aides thought that too high a number.
Over the next few days a process of political mediation took place between the Moore liaison team and the chafing congressional delegations. The Trinity River project in Texas, ruled out one week was restored in the face of outraged protests by House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.).
When the White House finally announced the list of endangered projects on March 23, it had been pared to 30.
On Capitol Hill, members still cannot understand where Carter's water projects moves are going. He has angered such powers as Stennis and Long in the Senate and Wright and Udall, in the House.
If he persists, after public hearings, in recommending the end of many rather than a few projects, Hill veterans believe he will lose all.
"He has united Congress," one member said last week, "when he might have won a majority by going after one or two projects from the beginning."
Nonetheless, Carter already has won a victory. Criteria for future public works projects that once were the sole prerogative of Congress will now be his. As White House aide Fletcher told a recent meeting of water project supporters, "I think we definitely have a change in policy."
Carter's campaign promises may in the end be fulfilled - though not as quickly as he wished.