As Congress struggles to agree on a long-overdue budget and spending bills, the devil is in the details as Republicans try to sneak through provisions that would harm the environment, public health, and democracy.
The budget drama has become a long-running soap opera. Since last October, when the 2018 federal fiscal year began, federal agencies have been like heroines tied to the railroad tracks, waiting for deliverance from Congress before the money runs out and shuts them down. Each time, at the brink, lawmakers have gotten together to stop the train. However, they never resolve the problem, and instead agree to short-term measures, called Continuing Resolutions (CR), to keep the money running for a few more days or weeks.
Of course, the soap opera is even more challenging this year, because Congress first has to vote to raise the budget caps it agreed to in 2011, when lawmakers passed the Budget Control Act, a bipartisan law that imposes hard limits on federal spending over ten years. Only after members do that will they be free to negotiate a more detailed spending plan.
The next crisis occurs on January 19, this Friday, when the current CR expires. But now the soap opera has gotten even messier, as budget negotiations are tangled up with political fights over other funding issues. These include President Trump’s border wall; protecting 700,000 Dreamers — the foreign-born children of undocumented immigrants raised in the US — from deportation; providing health insurance to nine million poor children; and disaster relief to Puerto Rico, Texas, California and other states hit hard by recent extreme weather events.
But there’s another struggle going on, one that lurks deep in the budget weeds and does not usually make the headlines. Progressive groups are fighting to not only save domestic programs from sharp budget cuts, but also to block conservative amendments to budget and spending bills.
Nearly 200 such groups representing labor, public health, social justice, faith, environmental, consumer and campaign finance causes are working together in this effort. Calling themselves the Clean Budget Coalition, they oppose any budget deal that includes what they term “ideological poison pill riders.”
What constitutes a poison pill rider? It’s something that is “not bipartisan and not fixing a problem,” Lisa Gilbert told WhoWhatWhy. Gilbert is vice president for legislative affairs for Public Citizen, one of the groups leading the effort.
This year, poison pill riders threaten a broad range of policies and programs, including environmental protections, women’s access to health services, campaign spending transparency, and long-standing rules enforcing the separation of church and state — one rider would permit churches to endorse candidates while keeping their tax-exempt status.
In previous spending bills, the Clean Budget Coalition has successfully blocked many riders, taking an “all for one, one for all” approach. Cooperating organizations oppose all riders, not just those that resonate with their own constituencies. Since 2011, when the GOP took control of the House of Representatives, the coalition’s allies have been Democratic members of Congress. In a budget deal agreed to last year, for example, Democrats crowed that they had killed 160 poison pill” riders.
The fight over riders is not entirely a partisan one. Sometimes these struggles make for unusual alliances. In 2015, for example, Public Citizen teamed up with the conservative House Freedom Caucus to oppose a Senate proposal that would have made it easier for political parties to both financially support and work with individual campaigns. Campaign finance reform groups did not want to relax party fundraising restrictions, and the Freedom Caucus was wary of giving establishment Republicans more leverage over candidates. Meanwhile Republicans have criticized many riders to spending and budget bills offered by Democrats in the past.
“The support of polluting industries is a good explainer for why you have members of Congress who do want to delay these common-sense and life-saving health protections.”
Nevertheless, over the past several years, it has been conservative riders that have spurred the Clean Budget Coalition to act. “Our voices are more powerful when we join together,” Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters, told WhoWhatWhy. “Members of Congress take more notice when groups can all get behind a particular message of keeping spending bills focused on spending issues, avoiding these kinds of ideological policy riders that would take us backwards and hurt people.”
But this year, the struggle is more perilous, advocates say. With so many urgent priorities now folded into budget talks, Gilbert stated, it would be easy for lawmakers to get distracted. “They’re taking oxygen away from regular budget issues. Some riders could slip under the radar. We have to keep members aware that these riders could sneak in.”
The Trump administration already has reversed many Obama-era policy initiatives through actions by its new agency heads to overturn rules and regulations. But riders offer additional dangers. Taurel said the next administration can undo many harmful policies adopted by the current White House, but “not if the law has been changed” through a policy rider.
He offered the example of the Environmental Protection Agency’s current initiative to reverse Obama policies and rules to ensure safe drinking water.
The EPA, headed by the industry-friendly Scott Pruitt, is in the process of repealing the clean water rule, but a budget rider in the House Energy and Water spending bill would go further, Taurel said. It would change the law to exempt Pruitt’s revised rule from public comment while insulating the rule from court challenges. The rider would block environmental groups from suing the agency for acting in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner, Taurel said — a right enshrined in law since 1946. The rider is “tremendously concerning,” he said.
And there are many other “concerning” proposals among the more than 60 environmental riders pending in these spending bills, Taurel said.
Putting the Brakes on Clean Air
House appropriators would delay new standards to protect people from ground-level ozone pollution — or smog — for up to eight years, to 2026.
The same rider also doubles the time for periodic EPA review of all air pollutants from every five years to once a decade.
Public health advocates attacked the rider both for endangering the health of those who will be exposed to dirty air in the years before the new standards take effect, and for weakening the Clean Air Act’s ability to monitor air quality in the future.
In 2015, after much scientific study, the EPA proposed to restrict the level of ground-level ozone from 75 parts per billion to 70 ppb. The EPA estimated that by 2025, the annual costs to industry would not exceed $1.4 billion, but the public health benefits could be as much $5.9 billion. (The EPA excluded the costs and benefits of compliance for California, because it would follow a different timeline for implementing the rule.)
Annually, the EPA predicted, thousands of deaths could be prevented — along with 960 hospital admissions and visits to the emergency room; the worsening of 230,000 cases of asthma; and 188,000 days lost due to pollution-related asthma, bronchitis and other illness.
However, manufacturing companies argued that the new standards could cost the national economy $140 billion a year, and that they are unnecessary since air quality already had improved under existing standards.
“The support of polluting industries is a good explainer for why you have members of Congress who do want to delay these common-sense and life-saving health protections,” Taurel charged.
The “See No Evil” Rider
Another House rider bars the EPA from considering the economic impact of climate change when estimating the costs and benefits of its rules. For example, the rider would prevent the EPA from factoring in the costs of extreme weather that recently caused billions of dollars of wind and flood damage, led to droughts that spurred wildfires, and exacerbated sea level rise. The amendment ignores predictions by both the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Defense that rising temperatures likely will cost the US tens of billions of dollars, a future cost that the federal government “simply cannot afford” to ignore, said Senator Susan Collins (R-ME).
Nuclear Waste? What Nuclear Waste?
Senate Energy and Water appropriators decided to make the Yucca Mountain project disappear, pretending that individual nuclear plants could store their radioactive waste on site. Thirty years ago, Congress designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the proper resting place for the country’s radioactive waste. But the rider cuts the $120 million proposed by the Trump administration to revive the project, which stalled in 2010.
Nevada residents have opposed the Yucca Mountain plan, raising questions about the safety of transporting and storing the waste at the site. Many environmentalists share these concerns and also fear that it could encourage more nuclear power plants to be built. But the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), charged that the rider “severs any meaningful linkage between and storage and disposal of nuclear waste … from the nation’s weapons programs and nuclear power plants,” and sets a “dangerous precedent.”
Toppling Big Trees
Other riders would jeopardize the towering old-growth forests of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest — the largest national forest in the US, which Taurel calls the nation’s “crown jewel” — by opening them up to more logging and development. The riders, which Alaska’s governor claimed would boost the state’s economy, will benefit timber interests at the expense of the growing economic sectors of recreation and tourism, Taurel contended. He noted that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the chair of the Senate Interior Appropriations Committee, pushed them through.
“We know she was able to get her rider into the tax bill to turn the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into an industrial oil field,” Taurel charged, “so we’re very much concerned about these particular efforts that she’s pushing in her home state. These are public lands that are important to all of us and not just the property of the state of Alaska.”
Sidelining Planned Parenthood
Planned Parenthood, which offers millions of American women access to health services that include abortion and contraception, long has been a target of conservative policymakers.
But this year, Planned Parenthood officials charge that House drafters “have sunk to a new low” by blocking the group’s ability to secure virtually any federal funding for its operations. A rider in the House Labor – Health and Human Services spending bill would block Planned Parenthood from any federal money targeted for family planning, sex education, domestic violence and sexual assault programs, AIDS prevention, breast cancer screening and even informing women about the risks of the Zika virus. With a network of 600 health centers throughout the country, Planned Parenthood is a major provider of such services, reaching an estimated 20 percent of US women. Public health, civil rights and women’s groups charged the rider would have a “devastating impact on access to basic health care services for women, men, and young people, including LGBTQ people, around the country.”
Money and Politics
Conservatives often target efforts to make political giving more transparent. Indeed, one rider in the House Financial Services spending bill would block the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from finalizing a rule to require publicly traded companies to disclose their political spending, including the estimated hundreds of millions of dollars that companies quietly funnel to trade groups and other nonprofits.
But this year, lawmakers also added a new wrinkle, partly fulfilling a Trump campaign promise to shield churches from losing their tax-exempt status if they endorse candidates. In 1956, then-Senator Lyndon Johnson included a provision in a tax law that banned churches from partisan activity. Trump, backed by some evangelical leaders, has now promised to kill the Johnson amendment.
The rider would not repeal the ban on partisan activity outright, but any enforcement of the law would be nearly impossible for IRS agents to undertake. They would first need the sign-off of the IRS Commissioner, and would have to notify Congress.
More than 4,000 faith leaders have strongly opposed the rider, concerned that politics will taint their religious mission and message.
The first challenge for rider opponents is legislation setting overall spending limits for 2018, which Congress is expected to take up in the next week or so. Taurel said some poison pill riders could be slipped into that legislation. But he predicts that the main battle will be fought sometime in late winter or early spring, when Congress must decide how much money to allocate to specific federal agencies and programs: “We would definitely be worried about these riders making it into that end-game spending bill.”
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from actors (United Artists / Wikimedia), tracks (Steve Harwood / Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0), train (Scott Schrantz / Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), and stack (Larry Myhre / Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).