Public Citizen News / November-December 2021
By David Rosen
This article appeared in the November/December 2021 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.
Amid intense negotiations over the Build Back Better plan, Public Citizen has not forgotten the other big looming budgetary need: the need to pass the annual appropriations packages and avoid a government shutdown.
In October, U.S. Senate Appropriations Chair Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) released a set of nine funding bills that showed real commitment to spending our resources on the pressing needs of the nation and keeping the focus of these bills where they belong: funding our government.
The Senate bills removed a set of longstanding, poison pill policy riders that were added over the years at the behest of Republican lawmakers and have remained part of the annual spending packages year after year. Most of the same “legacy riders” were removed from the U.S. House versions of these bills that Democrats passed over the summer.
The so-called “legacy riders” that were removed attacked women’s health, our environment, the integrity of our campaign finance system, and more. They have nothing to do with funding our government, so they never belonged in the annual spending packages in the first place.
As poison pills, these measures are unpopular and highly controversial, which is why they could not become law through regular order. Instead, they were quietly added into obscure provisions of lengthy, difficult-to-read appropriations bills to conceal their presence with no public debate.
“It is a welcome change to see lawmakers in both chambers of Congress removing legacy riders,” said Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president for Public Citizen, who led the fight against these measures and founded the Clean Budget Coalition, a big tent alliance dedicated to removing poison pills from appropriations bills.
The Clean Budget Coalition was founded in 2015 to fight off hundreds of poison pill appropriations riders that Republicans tried to add late in the Obama administration. Nevertheless, a few snuck through, and these are among the legacy riders the coalition has been fighting to remove ever since.
Public Citizen is especially pleased by the removal of three secret money riders that fuel corruption and block important campaign finance rules that we and our allies strongly support.
One secret money rider stops the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission from finishing a rule that would require publicly traded companies to disclose their political spending to shareholders. Secret political spending is a huge problem that the public wants to see fixed, and shareholders deserve to understand how the companies they invest in are spending in politics.
Another rider stops the executive branch from requiring government contractors to disclose their political spending. The public has the right to know whether companies are being awarded federal government contracts because of campaign donations or on their own merits.
And a third rider blocks the U.S. Treasury Department and the IRS from setting standards for 501(c)(4) political activity that clearly define what nonprofits can and cannot do in elections. Without clear guidance, nonprofits willing to flout the rules – especially dark money groups – get a free pass. Meanwhile, the vast majority of nonprofits that want to follow our nation’s laws on nonpartisan civic engagement remain in the dark as to what is and isn’t permissible, leaving them at the mercy of potentially subjective and arbitrary enforcement.
These three secret money riders were not the only ones that lawmakers removed.
Senate appropriators also took out the infamous Hyde Amendment – a discriminatory ban on coverage of abortion care for those who receive health insurance through Medicaid – and a variety of Hyde-like riders targeting the District of Columbia, the Peace Corps, and global health assistance programs.
They also removed the Weldon Amendment, which allows hospitals, insurance companies, and individual health care professionals to deny care, coverage, and referrals for abortion.
Appropriators also took out an array of anti-environmental riders, including one blocking the addition of the Sage Grouse to the list of endangered species. Several of the anti-environmental riders created clean air exemptions for factory farms and overruled scientific judgments about various sources of pollution.
Lawmakers in both chambers of Congress deserve enormous thanks for removing these noxious measures, and as a result, they will be in a stronger position to insist on keeping these harmful riders out during final negotiations.
The ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), has already said he wants to put these harmful measures back in – a clear indication that they will be a flashpoint in the year-end fight to fund our government.
Unfortunately, the annual spending bills are not exempt from the Senate’s counterproductive 60-vote filibuster requirement. So it is crucial that lawmakers remain firm in their commitment to keeping these harmful measures out of the final spending package.
“The integrity of our campaign finance system, women’s health, and our environment should not be bargaining chips,” Gilbert said. “We deserve a budget that not only addresses the needs of the present but fully funds important public services and invests in a better future. To do that, Congress and the White House must finish out the appropriations process with a clean budget, instead of passing a year-long continuing resolution.”
You can help by contacting your representative and two senators and urging them to remove all legacy riders from the annual appropriations packages – and by using the hashtag #cleanbudget when you tweet about this.