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EDITORIAL BOARD ALERT: Congress Must Finish 2017 Appropriations This Year, Keep Budget Free of Harmful Riders

Sept. 20, 2016

EDITORIAL BOARD ALERT: Congress Must Finish 2017 Appropriations This Year, Keep Budget Free of Harmful Riders

On the Brink of a Government Shutdown, Nearly 700 Poison Pill Policy Riders Remain

At midnight on Sept. 30, funding for the current fiscal year will run out. If Congress fails to act before then, the federal government will shut down until funding is restored. To avoid the disruptive effects of a shutdown, Congress must pass a short-term continuing resolution, which will extend the current year’s funding until lawmakers are ready to resume work. Two major obstacles stand in the way of a timely resolution to this year’s appropriations process: the threat of continued delay and poison pill policy riders.

Instead of doing their jobs and finishing the appropriations process this year as they promised, some Republican lawmakers want to delay further debate over funding levels until March 2017. This is unacceptable. Departments and agencies throughout our government are counting on Congress to set funding levels, so that they can set appropriate budgets for the year ahead. Furthermore, next spring is when Congress is supposed to begin debate on funding levels for the following year. Lawmakers should not be allowed to continually postpone their most basic governing responsibilities.

And then there is the matter of riders. According to the latest count, Republican lawmakers have added more than 680 poison pill policy riders to the various appropriations bills. Some would roll back Wall Street reform; some would block clean air and clean water protections; others would attack women’s health care and fundamental civil rights. These provisions – which would harm American workers, consumers and families – have nothing to do with funding the government, could not become law on their own merits and have no place in the appropriations process.

Please call on federal lawmakers to do their jobs and stop playing political games with the federal budget. Tell Congress to pass a short-term continuing resolution, finish the appropriations process before the end of the year and reject the hundreds of poison pill policy riders that would harm regular Americans.

At the beginning of the year, Republicans in both chambers of Congress promised to move appropriations legislation through regular order. Had they kept their word, each chamber would have passed 12 separate appropriations bills, one at a time. But instead of staying focused on funding levels, Republicans have treated this must-pass legislation as an opportunity to ram through amendments granting special favors for big businesses and ideologically motivated interest groups. The resulting bills look more like a set of corporate wish lists than funding bills.

Now, having failed to honor their commitments in time to avoid a potential government shutdown, congressional Republicans are trying to use the stopgap funding measures to ram through some of their more controversial proposals, according to the latest reports. With funding set to expire in just 10 days, lawmakers need to set aside these issues and pass a continuing resolution that will keep our government open through December.

When the appropriations process resumes later in the year, one possibility is that the various appropriations bills will be combined into a single, massive funding package called an omnibus. Another possibility is that Congress may merge the various appropriations bills into several larger packages, each a minibus, to be voted on separately. No matter which approach Congress takes, the final stages of the process will involve high-stakes negotiations between the congressional leadership of both parties and the White House. It is inevitable that policy riders will be a central point of contention.

The Clean Budget Coalition, an alliance of more than 100 public interest, labor, environmental, public health, civil rights and consumer groups has come together to oppose harmful riders. Members of the coalition agree that special favors for ideological extremists and big corporations do not belong in appropriations legislation. Most of these measures are unpopular and controversial with voters in both parties, and have been added to the legislation in secret by lawmakers who are hoping to avoid a real debate.

There are far too many riders to name, and they merit strong opposition. Among them, riders attached to appropriations legislation would:

  • Block the overtime rule, which will increase pay for millions of hardworking Americans;

  • Allow financial advisers to continue providing conflicted and misleading investment advice to American workers saving for retirement;

  • Halt executive action to require federal contractors to disclose their political spending;

  • Block any new major public protection with economic impacts over $100 million;

  • Prohibit the IRS from creating a clear definition of political activity that would allow nonprofits to engage in the democratic process and prevent future mistakes in the IRS’ enforcement of electioneering laws;

  • Stop the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission from finalizing a rule requiring publicly traded corporations to disclose their political spending to shareholders;

  • Strip the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau of its political independence by changing its source of funding and its leadership structure;

  • Create additional obstacles to a rule restricting forced arbitration clauses in consumer contracts, which allow corporations to rip off consumers with impunity;

  • Stop the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from giving generic drug manufacturers the ability to update their labels when new health risks are discovered;

  • Obstruct a rule requiring agencies to acknowledge the social costs of carbon emissions;

  • Delay restrictions on predatory payday lending and allow state and tribal governments to opt-out from the rule;

  • Weaken oversight of big banks and financial institutions that put our economy at risk;

  • Stop all new financial reform regulations to hold Wall Street accountable; and

  • Block a rule protecting more than two million workers from deadly silica dust.

Inappropriate riders such as those listed above have replaced earmarks as the leading public interest hazard interfering with the appropriations process. However, they are actually far worse than the old district-specific earmarks because their reach and their consequences for the American people is far greater. Instead of merely wasting taxpayer money (though some riders do that as well), many riders dismantle important federal laws, rewrite long-established policies or sabotage vital public protections on behalf of corporate interests and ideological extremists. Key watchdog agencies that protect public health, safety and our environment may lose their independence or see the fundamentals of their mission changed, with little or no public consideration.

Lawmakers who back these measures are well aware their proposals could not become law on their own merits and have little public support. So they sneak them into appropriations bills as riders, bypassing the democratic process and avoiding a public debate. But as is so often the case with political dangers that lurk in the shadows, sunshine is the best disinfectant. In 2015, the media attention given to controversial appropriations riders led to a public outcry that ultimately stopped the vast majority of harmful riders that were proposed for inclusion in the 2016 omnibus. This year, the threat from riders has returned with a vengeance.

In March, five top-ranking U.S. senators signed a letter (PDF) rejecting poison pill riders. In April, 172 members of the U.S. House of Representatives called on the leadership to pass a clean budget, while the White House signaled its disapproval of riders. And in May, U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) called on Congress to remove the harmful policy riders from the process.

Please call on Congress to remove these poison pill riders and pass a clean budget before the end of the year. To speak with an expert, please contact any of the individuals listed above.