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Jimmy Carter and the Water Wars: Presidential Influence and the Politics of Pork.

Jimmy Carter and the Water Wars: Presidential Influence and the Politics of Pork. By Scott A. Frisch and Sean Q. Kelly. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2008. 236 pp.

In Jimmy Carter and the Water Wars: Presidential Influence and the Politics of Pork, Scott A. Frisch and Sean Q. Kelly dispute the "nearly universal perception that Carter was a failure as a legislative leader" (p. 31). Instead, the authors argue that Carter was somewhat successful in his legislative influence and that his success stemmed from his identity as a "trustee" president (p. 38) who "believed that good policy was good politics" (p. 7). Vetoing objectionable water projects furthered his commitment to both fiscal discipline and environmental protection and advanced his vision of prioritizing good policy in the long term over political victories in the short term.

Through their impressive analysis of archival documents from White House meetings, records of key House members, oral histories, and congressional roll call votes, the authors make a strong case for this reassessment of Carter's legacy. As a centrist Democrat, he took on powerful committee chairs and leaders of his own party, rejecting their most prized pork-barrel projects in the name of fiscal discipline. Somewhat surprisingly (given that the 1979 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill passed the House and Senate by extremely wide margins), Carter succeeded in securing enough votes from both Democratic and Republican junior "reformist" members of Congress from the Northeast and Midwest--to sustain his veto.

While this book is at its best in its mixed-method approach and the depth of coverage of the intraparty institutional battle, it could have provided a deeper discussion of water projects and environmental policy and politics in general. Readers expecting to learn about the basics of the "water wars"--what types of water projects are advanced through earmarks, what objections environmentalists have to many such water projects, what makes some water projects environmentally sound and others environmentally dangerous, and so on--will find the book's treatment sparse.

Rather, the authors' focus is squarely on presidential influence in Congress (especially through the threatened and/or actual use of the veto power), and water projects serve as examples of many possible cases to be studied. We now know that the fateful decisions made by Gulf Coast senators and representatives for decades to secure environmentally harmful water projects (e.g., shipping channels and wetland erosion) and to avoid beneficial water projects (e.g., strengthening levees) contributed significantly to the devastation of New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina. One might have expected the authors to capitalize on this by calling attention to how high the stakes were (and still are) in these turf battles over water projects. The authors miss the opportunity to show the reader how important the effects of such executive-legislative battles are to the lives of Americans. Instead, the authors emphasize presidential success/failure in vetoing legislation as, itself, what matters--the policy substance is interesting only to the extent that it provides a case to shed light on the interbranch political battles.

In short, the book will disappoint those wishing to learn more about water projects--why Carter and other environmentalists found certain types of water projects to be harmful and why he embraced others. It does, however, deliver as advertised in its title and subtitle--it focuses almost exclusively on Carter's two-year battle with the Democratic Congress over pork-barrel projects, and, in doing so, it challenges the conventional wisdom that portrays Carter as a failed legislative leader. While the book misses many opportunities to draw connections to the George W. Bush presidency (the book was published in 2008, so it presumably was completed before Barack Obama became president), there is much to learn from this book about Jimmy Carter specifically, and about presidents' legislative influence and pork-barrel politics more broadly.

--Daniel N. Lipson

SUNY New Paltz
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Author:Lipson, Daniel N.
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 21, 2011
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