Newcomers to Congress learn quickly the treasured maxims of the House of Representatives. To get along, go along. Vote your district. Cut other people's programs, not those of your constituents. If you take a controversial stand, don't put out a press release about it.
In one measured moment in the Home recently these cliches of accommodation were put aside by Rep. Butler Carson Derrick Jr., a second-term Democrat who represents the rural 3d District of western South Carolina.
While other Democrats were drawing battle lines with President Carter over his announced decision to halt funding for 30 water projects. Derrick, publicly declared himself in favor of reviewing a project in his own district, the Richard B. Russell Dam and Lake.
The project currently priced at $276 million, is a favorite of the Army Corps of Engineers, which long ago dammed most of the remaining upper Savannah River dividing Georgia and South Carolina. The dam would generate 300,000 kilowatts of electric power and flood 59,000 acres, Including 46,000 acres of wildlife habital.
Russell Dam, which has the support of all four senators from both states, was supported by Carter when he was governor of Georgia. It also was backed by Derrick when he first ran for the House in 1974, a support he says he has not withdrawn.
What Derrick has done, at some political risk, is to challenge the conventional wisdom that a congressman should support only those budget cuts that affect other people's districts.
"Wasteful and unnecessary expenditure of the federal dollar must be curtailed, if not completely halted." Derrick said in his letter to Carter supporting budget review for Russell Dam. "Adding debt, year after year, to be paid for by future generations of Americans must stop. As a member of the House, I find that the problem of denying funds is not a complex or difficult problem in areas not affecting one's constituents."
Derrick believes that congressional unwillingness to vote for budget cuts close to home mirrors a basic attitude of most Americans.
"The Congress, you know, is reflective of what the people want," says Derrick. "As long as you don't cut something that hurts me, everything's all right. We'd cut the other fellow all day long and balance the budget. But when it starts pinching your pocketbook, all of a sudden the project becomes a very meritorious one that you cannot do without. And we hang the American flag on it."
Derrick is a soft-spoken 40-year-old lawyer with a courtly manner and a budget-cutting reputation. Even by South Carolina standards, he is not likely to be mistaken for a raving liberal. As a freshman, he was rated by Congressional Quarterly as the eighth most conservative of the 94 freshman congressmen. Speaking to a meeting of the McCormick, S.C., chapter of the NAACP last Sunday, Derrick favored budget cuts, a strong military defense against the Soviet Union and the state's right-to-work law. He opposed common site picketing and unionization of the armed forces.
But Derrick has been a progressive on racial issues in a district that is 77 per cent white. As a legislator, he named the first black to a local school board in South Carolina. He has two blacks on his staff.
Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, the colorful William Jennings Bryan Dorn. Derrick also has a well-developed system of constituent service. He sends neatly typed letters of condolence to families in which there is a funeral and messages of congratulation when there is a marriage. Derrick proved so popular in his first term that he was unopposed both for renomination and re-election in 1976.
Whatever else his stand on Russell Dam has done, it seems virtually certain to guarantee Derrick opposition in 1978.
"A group that's for the dam let me know a long time ago that I would face opposition if I opposed the dam." Derrick said. "I thought about this a great deal and it was very deliberate on my part. I decided that not to be willing to review a project of this magnitude was completely unreasonable."
"I think Derrick made a political mistake," says weekly published John West Jr. of Abbeville, the head of a committee that supports the dam. "If anything would bring opposition to Butler, it would be his stand on the dam."
If Derrick decides to support the dam, he will face the wrath of environmentalists who have had their expectations raised by Carter's stand and by Derrick's support of it.
"The project has now become identified with Derrick and he's stuck with it," says Brion Blackwelder, head of an environmental coalition opposing the dam. "It's Congressman Derrick's Dam, if it's built."
"Derrick's Dam," if such it becomes, ignites strong passiions in South Carolina. Sen. Strom Thurmond once denounced it as "big dam foolishness." Derrick's predecessor Dorn in 1965 called the project "the worst economic blow to South Carolina since Sherman marched through."
But these politicians changed their tune in 1966. At that time Duke Power Co. of South Carolina wanted to build a nuclear power plant upstream on the Savannah. The Rural Electrification Administration and the co-ops it represented were ardent supporters of the Russell Dam project, then known as Trotters Shoals, but opposed the nuclear project.
With Dorn taking the lead, a deal was struck. The co-ops agreed to withdraw their opposition to the nuclear plant in exchange for support for the Russell Dam project. The nuclear plant, known as Keowee-Toxaway, was built. And Thurmond, Dorn and the other political leaders of the state began singing the praises of the proposed Russell Dam.
One politician who has failed to join the chorus is Gov. James B. Edwards, a Republican conservative who was elected in 1974. Edwards undertook his own study of the dam, directing one staff member to report on why the dam should be built and another on why it should not be constructed.
The result, in November, 1975, was a letter to the Corps of Engineers saying that "the huge, and increasing, cost of the project seems far more than the benefits derived."
Edwards, who by his own declaration is "hardly a bumper strip environmentalist," also made an environmental case against the dam. He said it would destroy a prime wildlife habitat and possibly damage fishing in Clark Lake below the dam.
Fish and game commissions in both Georgia and South Carolina and a host of outdoors groups have opposed the dam. The U.S. Bureau of Outdoor Recreation heaped scorn on the Corps of Engineers' claim of flatwater recreation benefits, saying that lakes created by two other Corps dams (Clark Hill and Hartwell) are less than half used. The two lakes together have 2,000 miles of shoreline.
The conflict between those who want the dam built and those who want it stopped involves ways of looking at a river and ways of looking at the federal budget.
From the standpoint of 62-year-old Robert Bennett, director of an electrical cooperative who remembers when the Savannah used to flood the family farm, the dam means both progress and power.
"It's very foolish in my opinion to have a river running that can generate power and not use it," says Bennett.
To Blackwelder, 27, and the young environmentalists around him this is an example of an outmoded commitment to high-cost "socialized power" at the expense of the environment. And to politicians like derrick and Edwards the issues are primarily budgetary ones, questions about whether the federal government is getting its dollar's wrth.
Gov. Edwards is pessimistic about the final outcome. He believes that neither the President nor Derrick nor his own opposition is likely to prevail over the forces of bureaucracy.
"Realistically, I think the dam will be built." Edwards said in an interview. "There are too many inertias moving too fast. It chagrins me to think that bureaucracies are such that these things get rolling and all the politicians in the world can vote against them and they still go on. It's a pretty bad reflection on government."
Edward's pessimism may be justifield, based on the record. But there is a sense in Derrick's district that times have changed, that Jimmy Carter means what he says, that the Corps of Engineers can be held to account, that budget-cutting must begin at home.
When Derrick returned last week to his hometown of Edgefield, where the high school is named after local hero Strom Thurmond, he was greeted by signs that said, "Thank you, Mr. Derrick." The occasion was a turkey-calling contest sponsored by the county fish and game association, of which Derrick is president.
"I just don't think we need the dam," said L. T. Mathis of Edgefield, putting down a plate of barbecue to discus the issue. "Pretty soon, this whole country is going to be under water. There are so many dams, and yet oil and coal produced most of this country's electricity. They keep putting people off their property to build more and more dams."
Derrick returned to Washington on Sunday evening, after attending three other events in his district. The very next day he offered an amendment in the House Budget Committee to delete $280 million for water projects that Jimmy Carter regards as inefficient monuments to the past.