The Energy and Water Appropriations Bill had always been extremely popular with many members of Congress as a vehicle for delivering significant benefits—dams, navigation projects, flood control projects, and the like—to their districts.2 Like the proverbial 2 – 4, the veto got the attention of Congress.
Carter’s veto was the penultimate event in a nearly two-year struggle between Carter and Congress over funding for water projects. Shortly after he took office, Jimmy Carter announced his intention to launch a comprehensive review of the design and funding of water projects, and declared his intention to request—via the FY 1978 Supplemental Appropriations Bill—that Congress not fund nearly twenty water projects that had been authorized by Congress. Carter went so far as to threaten to veto the Appropriations Bill that included funding for the projects. Despite Carter’s threat, Congress pressed forward. In a last-minute deal between Carter and Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-MA), Carter agreed to continue funding for half of the projects, and O’Neill agreed to drop funding for the other half of the projects from the spending bill.
Congress returned in 1978 with the FY 1979 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill that restored funding for all of the water projects. With public support for the president declining rapidly, and the perception in Washington that Carter was failing as a legislative leader, he was advised by his top aides to once again challenge Congress on funding for the water projects. This time, despite repeated warnings from key members of Congress, including Democratic Majority Leader Jim Wright (TX) and Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Tom Bevill (D-AL), that Congress would override his veto—thus compounding the appearance of providing weak leadership and perhaps endangering his other legislative priorities—Carter followed through on his threat and vetoed the bill.