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.

"An unusual coalition of urban liberals and Republican fiscal conservatives tried to sustain Bush's veto. 'Merely because the president is not the most popular person in the country today doesn't mean he's always wrong,' said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), who pushed for sweeping changes to the farm-support system."

David Stout and David Herszenhorn write in the New York Times that the House vote "was far over the two-thirds needed to overcome a veto, meaning that the president's criticism of the bill as bloated and wasteful won few, if any, converts."

Here's more from Bush's veto message: "At a time of high food prices and record farm income, this bill lacks program reform and fiscal discipline. It continues subsidies for the wealthy and increases farm bill spending by more than $20 billion, while using budget gimmicks to hide much of the increase. It is inconsistent with our objectives in international trade negotiations, which include securing greater market access for American farmers and ranchers. . . .

"At a time when net farm income is projected to increase by more than $28 billion in 1 year, the American taxpayer should not be forced to subsidize that group of farmers who have adjusted gross incomes of up to $1.5 million. When commodity prices are at record highs, it is irresponsible to increase government subsidy rates for 15 crops, subsidize additional crops, and provide payments that further distort markets."

Editorial Watch

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "The farm bill is the epitome of old-style Washington politics. A small number of farm-state senators from both parties demanded its most wasteful provisions, such as guaranteed payments to big cotton and rice growers and 'disaster relief' for farmers in arid areas. These members of the less-representative body leveraged their right to filibuster into billions of dollars for people who are better off than the average taxpayer. The bill includes only the most tepid reforms, which, though trumpeted by the bill's advocates, deny benefits to only a tiny handful of farms."

The New York Times editorial board wrote last week: "Congress has approved a $307 billion farm bill that rewards rich farmers who do not need the help while doing virtually nothing to help the world's hungry, who need all the help they can get.

"President Bush should keep his promise to veto it and demand better legislation.

"The bill is an inglorious piece of work tailored to the needs of big agriculture. . . .

"The bill includes the usual favors like the tax break for racehorse breeders pushed by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader. But the greater and more embarrassing defect is that the bill perpetuates the old subsidies for agriculture at a time when the prices that farmers are getting for big row crops like corn, soybeans and wheat have never been better. Net farm income is up 50 percent."

The Kansas City Star editorial board wrote: "Under the $290 billion measure, most of the subsidy money would still go to the richest farmers.

"To reduce that distortion, the administration proposed income caps for recipients of $200,000, meaning people with adjusted gross incomes above that level would be cut out of the welfare-for-farmers game.

"Instead, Congress approved a cap of $750,000 -- $1.5 million for married couples. And it is so loophole-ridden it would impose no real limits. Under the bill, a family with an income 104 times the poverty level would still receive subsidies."

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board wrote: "With food prices and farm incomes soaring, this should be an historic moment to junk a gimmick-laden and wasteful system of agricultural subsidies. But both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have lined up behind a five-year, $300 billion farm bill that changes little."

The Des Moines Register editorial board wrote: "By failing to curb abuses in subsidy programs, this legislation fails two basic tests for a sensible farm bill: It neither spends taxpayer dollars wisely nor benefits farmers and rural communities that need help most."

The Detroit News editorial board asked: "[W]hy are both Democrats and Republicans supporting this absurdity? Plain and simple: they are acting like pigs at the taxpayer trough."

Then Again

Michael Grunwald, in an essay for Time titled "Farm Bill Phoniness," wonders why Bush didn't fight for votes a little harder: "When President Bush vetoed a ban on waterboarding and other forms of torture, congressional Republicans backed him. When Bush blocked an expansion of children's health insurance, GOP votes sustained his veto again. But now, after Bush vetoed a bloated farm bill that will lavish billions of dollars on wealthy farmers who are already enjoying record commodity prices, the President suddenly can't seem to rally his own party. . . .

"[T]here is no indication this time around of any heavy pressure on Capitol Hill to back the President and buck the influential farm lobby. . . .

"[I]f the president really wanted to rein in wasteful spending, he probably wouldn't have presided over a seven-year expansion of government. And if he really wanted to stop the farm bill, he'd probably line up the kind of Republican backing he has on his tax cuts and the war."

Middle East Watch

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "Just days after President Bush returned from the Middle East, the Middle East is moving beyond the Bush administration.

"Two major peace efforts -- a surprise announcement of indirect talks between Israel and Syria brokered by Turkey and an eleventh-hour deal to prevent a new Lebanese war brokered by Qatar -- were launched without an American role, and both counter U.S. strategy in the region.

"For years, the Bush administration has resisted overtures from Jerusalem and Damascus to participate in revived peace efforts over the Golan Heights. The administration balked at including Syria in the Annapolis conference on Middle East peace last year, relenting only under pressure from allies, according to Western officials. . . .

"For the past 18 months, the United States has also urged the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to resist a new political arrangement that would reflect the shifting balance of power on the ground. Over the past two years, Washington has pledged $1.3 billion in aid, much of it to build up Lebanon's military. . . .

"The peace deal struck yesterday favors Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite political party and militia armed by Iran and Syria, which will gain enough new cabinet seats to veto any decision.

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "Israel, America's staunchest ally in the Middle East, just became the latest example of a country that has decided it is better to deal with its foes than to ignore them.

"The announcement that Israel has entered into comprehensive peace talks with Syria is at odds with the course counseled by the Bush administration, which initially opposed such talks in private conversations with Israelis, according to Israeli and American officials. A week ago, President Bush delivered a speech to the Israeli Parliament likening attempts to 'negotiate with the terrorists and radicals' to appeasement before World War II. . . .

"Israeli officials have said for months that the United States was the only obstacle blocking talks with Syria, which both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak advocated.

"In particular, Elliott Abrams, Mr. Bush's deputy national security adviser, has cautioned against an Israeli-Syria negotiation, according to Israeli and Bush administration officials. Administration officials said they feared that such a negotiation would appear to reward Syria at a time when the United States was seeking to isolate it for its meddling in Lebanon and its backing of Hezbollah.

"But a few weeks ago, Israeli officials told their counterparts at the State Department that they planned to begin the negotiations, which are being mediated by Turkey.

"'They weren't asking our permission,' one senior administration official said. Another Bush official characterized the Israeli announcement as 'a slap in the face.'"

Torture Watch

Carrie Johnson and Josh White write in The Washington Post: "Five years ago, as troubling reports emerged about the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a career lawyer at the Justice Department began a long and relatively lonely campaign to alert top Bush administration officials to a strategy he considered 'wrongheaded.'

"Bruce C. Swartz, a criminal division deputy in charge of international issues, repeatedly questioned the effectiveness of harsh interrogation tactics at White House meetings of a special group formed to decide detainee matters, with representatives present from the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA.

"Swartz warned that the abuse of Guantanamo inmates would do 'grave damage' to the country's reputation and to its law enforcement record, according to an investigative audit released earlier this week by the Justice Department's inspector general. Swartz was joined by a handful of other top Justice and FBI officials who said the abuse would almost certainly taint any legal proceedings against the detainees."

Johnson and White write about the policy split within the Justice Department: "On one side was its Office of Legal Counsel, where attorney John C. Yoo -- acting in direct consultation with Vice President Cheney's then-counsel David S. Addington -- wrote a series of memos that gave legal backing to harsh interrogation techniques. On the other side were career officials such as Swartz and some top Justice political appointees, even including then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, who sources say disliked some of Yoo's conclusions and resented his back-channel discussions with the White House."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "Does this sound familiar? Muslim men are stripped in front of female guards and sexually humiliated. A prisoner is made to wear a dog's collar and leash, another is hooded with women's underwear. Others are shackled in stress positions for hours, held in isolation for months, and threatened with attack dogs.

"You might think we are talking about that one cell block in Abu Ghraib, where President Bush wants the world to believe a few rogue soldiers dreamed up a sadistic nightmare. These atrocities were committed in the interrogation centers in American military prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. . . .

"They were described in a painful report by the Justice Department's inspector general, based on the accounts of hundreds of F.B.I. agents who saw American interrogators repeatedly mistreat prisoners in ways that the agents considered violations of American law and the Geneva Conventions. . . .

"These were not random acts. It is clear from the inspector general's report that this was organized behavior by both civilian and military interrogators following the specific orders of top officials. The report shows what happens when an American president, his secretary of defense, his Justice Department and other top officials corrupt American law to rationalize and authorize the abuse, humiliation and torture of prisoners. . . .

"For years, Mr. Bush has refused to tell the truth about his administration's inhuman policy on prisoners, and the Republican-controlled Congress eagerly acquiesced to his stonewalling. Now, the Democrats in charge of Congress must press for full disclosure."

On Water 'Treatment'

Mariah Blake writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "In a landmark congressional hearing Tuesday, former Guantanamo detainee Murat Kurnaz described abuses he said he endured while in US custody -- among them electric shock, simulated drowning, and days spent chained by his arms to the ceiling of an airplane hangar."

Kurnaz spoke by videolink from Germany at a hearing of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee.

Blake writes: "Much of the testimony given by Kurnaz, the first former Guantanamo detainee to appear before Congress, focused on his treatment at Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan, where he was taken after being arrested in Pakistan in December 2001. While there, he said was subjected to 'water treatment,' which involved having his head dunked in a water-filled bucket. 'They stick my head in the water and at the same time they punched me in the stomach so I had to inhale the water,' he said, using English he picked up in detention."

Satyam Khanna reports for Thinkprogress.org on how Kurnaz's testimony was received. Here's an exchange with Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher:

Rohrbacher: "You suggest that you were waterboarded in your captivity. Is that correct?"

Kurnaz: "No, it's not waterboarding. It's called 'water treatment.' There was a bucket of water."

That led Rohrbacher to wonder: ""The CIA is claiming that only three people have been waterboarded. And this may be a loophole that they're suggesting that's not 'waterboarding.'"

The 20-Year War?

In his remarks at the Coast Guard Academy commencement ceremony yesterday, Vice President Cheney acknowledged that the war has already gone on a long time: "When you stepped forward to serve the United States, it was already clear that these are decisive times in the life of our country. It's rare for an Academy class to begin during a war, and then graduate during that same war. The challenge that came to America on September 11th, 2001 will be the defining issue of your career."

But someday it will end, he said: "The war on terror is a lengthy enterprise, but it does not have to go on forever."

So how long will it take? "I am absolutely convinced that we will succeed in the war on terror -- and I'm also convinced that it will happen on your watch," he said.

And how long is that? I called the Coast Guard Academy this morning and asked Petty Officer Ryan Doss in the public affairs office what a normal tour of duty is for an academy graduate. "They have a five-year service obligation," he said.

So the war will be over in five years? Not so fast. Doss told me that "85 percent serve beyond the five-year mark." In fact a long career, he said, would be about 30 years.

But what's the average? Well, you don't qualify for retirement until you've served 20 years, Doss explained. "A lot of folks do retire around the 20-year mark."

So do we have a new deadline? Maybe the war on terror will be over by 2028. Mark your calendars.

Big Hat, Big Talk

John Christoffersen writes for the Associated Press: "Cheney, sporting a 10-gallon hat, said the troop surge in Iraq 'has succeeded brilliantly.' . . .

"'The only way to lose this fight is to quit. That would be irresponsible,' Cheney said. 'More than that, quitting would be an act of betrayal and dishonor.'"

But it was Cheney's choice of headwear that really fascinated Ted Mann, who blogged for the Day of New London, Conn.: "[S]eriously, what's up with that hat, Hoss?

"Is this a sun-damage-prevention measure? A subtle poke at those who've criticized the administration for 'cowboy diplomacy'? Maybe he just thought he'd get better distance in any post-commencement cap-tossing celebrations?"

In an update later in on, Mann blogged: "[H]ere's what a very considerate spokeswoman for Vice President Dick Cheney had to say to our very simple query. . . .

"'It's to protect his head from the sun,' said Megan Mitchell, the spokeswoman."

Iraq Watch

Ernesto Londoño and Sudarsan Raghavan write in The Washington Post: "Iraqi soldiers moved unhindered through Baghdad's vast Sadr City district on Wednesday as Shiite militiamen who have long controlled the area faded from view and schools and businesses began to reopen after weeks of strife.

"The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is pursuing an increasingly successful effort to contain the militias of his Shiite rivals and to exercise authority over areas where Iraqi forces were once unwelcome. The strategy has won Maliki admiration from Sunni politicians and from U.S. and British officials, who credit him with exerting some of the political will necessary to achieve reconciliation."

So is this evidence that Bush's policy in Iraq is working? Maybe, maybe not. It may instead be an indicator that the a U.S. withdrawal would help restore normalcy.

What was the secret to this effort's success? "[T]his week's deployment of thousands of Iraqi troops into Sadr City so far has included no overt assistance from the U.S. military," Londoño and Raghavan write.

"'We stressed that the occupation forces do not come in,' said Selman al-Freiji, a senior Sadrist leader in Baghdad. 'We welcome the entrance of Iraqi troops.'"

Iraqi Army Sgt. Romi Sayah is quoted as saying "he was relieved that U.S. troops were not playing a central role in the operation, which would have provoked the militias. He said U.S. forces should leave Iraq. 'I think it's time,' he said. 'The Iraqi army has proven itself.'"

The Hidden War

Timothy Egan blogs for the New York Times: "In a democracy, wars should be felt by the decision makers -- all of us. It starts at the top.

"So, in 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt said, 'This will require, of course, the abandonment not only of luxuries but of many other creature comforts.' President Bush made a sacrifice -- he gave up golf as an act of solidarity with families at war. The man who has probably taken more vacations than any other American president, who goes on showy mountain bike rides while his Veterans Administration shamefully mistreats broken warriors, who cut taxes while burdening a generation with this overseas cancer, is at ease with his conscience.

"'I don't want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf,' he said in a bizarre interview with Politico last week. 'And I think playing golf during a war sends the wrong signal.'

"He then went on, in the same interview, to do his imitation of Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies. No wrong signal there.

"In every way, this president has tried to hide the war. The press chafes because photos of flag-draped coffins are forbidden. But that's nothing compared to how this administration is trying to turn the public's eyes away from the pain of the people who feel it most directly, the soldiers and their families."

The New G.I. Bill

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "Ever since the G.I.'s came home from World War II, it has been the nation's policy to reward war veterans with college education. Now, a bipartisan proposal to expand that benefit significantly for today's veterans has encountered a new complication: the military still needs its fighting men and women in uniform, not in classrooms.

"With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan far from over, President Bush is threatening to veto a bill that would pay tuition and other expenses at a four-year public university for anyone who has served in the military for at least three years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A main reason is the fear that it would hasten an exodus from the ranks.

"The issue has created a political conundrum for a president who has often gone to great lengths to show support for the troops."

The First Lady and Burma

AFP reports: "First Lady Laura Bush implored Myanmar Wednesday to 'let the people of the United States help' with emergency cyclone aid after the military junta barred US navy ships from providing relief supplies."

In her interview yesterday with Voice of America, the first lady seemed to be focusing more on aid and less on regime change -- a dramatic departure from her angry remarks on May 5, when she tossed insults at Burma's leaders, blamed them for the high death toll, and lashed out at their decision to move forward with a constitutional referendum.

From yesterday's interview:

Q. "Now, there's some who have said that there should be no criticism of the Burmese regime in the context of trying to get aid there. Should -- in the course of the aid relief efforts, should it just be sort of hands off and no criticism of the regime at all?"

Bush: "Well, you know, if that would make the regime accept aid -- and I'm sure that that's the point -- but the regime knows that many, many countries have been critical, that many leaders of many countries have already been critical, long before this disaster.

"I think it's just important now to focus on the needs of these people who have been -- whose lives have been destroyed by the cyclone and try to get as much aid as possible there. But I think we can't lose sight of the real long-term goals for Burma, and that is a free Burma and a democracy that can be a part of the world."

Back on May 10, Paul Richter wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "As Myanmar's aid crisis deepens, the Bush administration is facing criticism that its denunciations of the military regime may have contributed to its resistance to allowing foreign aid workers to enter the storm-ravaged country.

"After Tropical Cyclone Nargis pounded Myanmar, First Lady Laura Bush and administration officials condemned the government Monday as illegitimate, blasted its human rights record, and charged that it had failed to give its residents adequate warning of the storm's approach. . . .

"Critics said the administration's harsh comments were poorly timed and risked reinforcing the government's suspicions of the outside world and undermining the humanitarian effort.

"'For the humanitarian purpose, you have to put politics aside and say unequivocally that we want to help,' said Joel Charny, vice president for policy at Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy group. 'We know the Burmese generals are going to be suspicious. We shouldn't be taking an approach that's going to make it more likely that backs get up and doors remain closed.'

"A senior United Nations official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said, 'It is certainly not helpful.'"

Cuba Watch

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush announced Wednesday that Americans would soon be allowed to send cellphones to relatives in Cuba, a policy shift he said was intended to force the country's new leader, Raul Castro, to make good on promised reforms by giving his people the freedom to communicate."

Cartoon Watch

Gary Clement and John Darkow on appeasement; Pat Bagley on the Campaignerator.

Post a Comment

Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2008 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive