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Poison Pill Riders Are Corrupt Paybacks to Industries and Extremists

By Lisa Gilbert

Must-pass spending bills should not be vehicles for corrupt paybacks to Big Business and ideological extremists, but that’s exactly what they’re becoming under the House majority.

In May, weeks before the debt ceiling deal was finalized, appropriators in the U.S. House of Representatives added at least 17 new poison pill policy riders to draft spending bills they marked up in subcommittee. These unpopular and controversial poison pills attack women’s health, harm consumers, help spread disinformation, and more.

Unscrupulous lawmakers are trying to get these policies into the text of the final FY 24 appropriations bills without discussion or debate – hoping nobody will notice or fight to remove them. None of them have anything to do with funding our government, and none of them could become law on their own merits.

Nearly all are special favors for big corporations and ideological extremists.

Consider two riders that clearly reward Big Tobacco. The Menthol and Flavored Cigars Rider blocks the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from finalizing rules to end the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, while the Nicotine Rider stops the agency from proposing a rule to reduce nicotine levels in cigarettes to make them less addictive. Both riders were added to the appropriations bill for Agriculture, Rural Development, the FDA, and Related Agencies.

OpenSecrets data shows Big Tobacco’s political spending leans heavily conservative. In the 2022 election cycle, the two biggest spenders in the industry, British American Tobacco and Altria Group (the parent company of Philipp Morris), gave $4.9 million to conservative super PACs dedicated to electing Republican majorities in Congress.

Similarly, the Ag bill has several riders showering Big Agribusiness with special favors. The Packer and Stockyards Act Rider prevents the U.S. Department of Agriculture from finalizing rules that would stop meatpacking corporations from exploiting small family farmers and ranchers. After decades of consolidation in the meat and poultry industries, competition is scarce. Multinational companies are forcing farmers into no-win, take-it-or-leave-it contracts and conditions that reflect indentured servitude more than a fair deal.

There’s also a Sodium Reduction Rider that blocks the FDA from working with industry on voluntary sodium reduction efforts; a WIC Healthy Food Benefit Rider undermines the USDA’s revisions to the healthy food benefit and adds a carveout for the dairy industry; and a “Healthy” Food Labeling Rider prevents liability for manufacturers that mislabel foods as healthy until the compliance date for the rule goes into effect.

According to OpenSecrets, the agribusiness sector contributed more than $6 million to House appropriators in the 2022 cycle. It looks like they’re getting their money’s worth.

Riders across several bills were added on behalf of anti-choice extremists – groups that donated nearly $2.7 million to lawmakers and spent nearly $1.5 million on lobbying in the 2022 cycle. For example, the Mifepristone Rider reverses the FDA decision to allow the safe and effective abortion medication to be dispensed in certified pharmacies, instead of only by prescribers in hospitals, clinics, and medical offices.

The Homeland Security appropriations bill has two riders attacking immigrants’ abortion rights. The ICE Abortion Rider bans coverage and provision of abortion services for individuals in ICE custody, except in cases of rape, incest, and a very narrow definition of life endangerment. This rider attempts to expand on prior bad policy that impacts people detained by ICE. Additionally, the ICE Abortion Refusals of Care Rider allows harmful refusals of care that harm those detained under ICE custody and stigmatize abortion care.

And while we’re on the subject of immigration, there’s also a Sponsor Deportation Rider eliminating a measure to protect potential sponsors of unaccompanied children from being deported themselves.

Those aren’t the only riders for right-wing culture warriors. The ICE Gender Affirming Care Rider prohibits the use of funds to administer hormone therapy medication or perform or facilitate any surgery for any person in custody of ICE for the purpose of gender-affirming care. The DHS Diversity Rider prohibits the use of funds for executive orders related to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies appropriations bill, there’s a Diversity Rider (similar to the DHS one) that prohibits the use of funds to implement executive orders related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as a CRT Rider that prohibits the use of funds to teach or promote Critical Race Theory.

Why does this matter? By mid-century, racial and ethnic minority veterans will comprise nearly 40% of the entire veterans community compared to just one out of four veterans today. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – and our military in general – must be capable of serving this growing population.

A network of dark money groups has been working to push anti-CRT policies for years, launching ad campaigns and backing anti-CRT political candidates. Spending bills should not be a platform for amendments that further right-wing pet causes.

Shockingly, the Homeland Security bill has riders to aid foreign adversaries and homegrown terrorists. There’s a DHS Disinformation Rider limiting the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s ability to counter disinformation campaigns, including from foreign adversaries seeking to undermine our elections. And there’s a CISA Disinformation Rider that limits the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s ability to counter disinformation efforts by domestic extremists and other adversaries seeking to harm critical infrastructure and our communities.

All of these riders come from just three of the 12 appropriations bills in the House, and the  Clean Budget Coalition will keep tracking these poisonous policies as more of the bills roll out.

With markups already resuming, many more new riders – maybe even hundreds more – are likely to be added to the remaining nine bills this summer. That may sound like hyperbole, but in 2016, congressional Republicans added at least 750 distinct poison pill riders to draft appropriations bills. Thankfully most of them were removed before final passage, but not all.A few went on to become legacy riders. Legacy riders became law in a previous budget cycle, and they’re held over year after year from one budget cycle to the next until congressional lawmakers remove them.

The Clean Budget Coalition has identified more than two dozen legacy riders. They attack abortion rights, fuel political corruption, harm our environment, and more. Like the new poison pills, these measures are also special favors for anti-abortion extremists, Big Polluters, Big Oil, Big Agribusiness, Big Developers, corrupt government contractors, dark money groups, and the gun industry to name just a few.

Enough is enough. The must-pass annual spending bills are becoming a vehicle for an ever-expanding litany of corrupt paybacks and special favors, and lawmakers need to draw the line. No spending bill that contains poison pill riders should pass, 100 groups recently told Congress. These measures must be removed.

This cycle, the deal that was struck to avoid default includes a forcing mechanism to ensure that all 12 appropriations bills are passed. If that doesn’t happen by the end of the calendar year, automatic across-the-board cuts to defense and nondefense spending will kick in: an incentive that motivates both sides of the aisle. In the push to get the bills done, lawmakers should not allow poison pill riders into the final package.

The public deserves a 2024 budget that not only addresses the needs of the present but invests in a better future – not spending bills that defund critical priorities and hack away at essential safeguards to pay back industry donors and right-wing extremists. Congress must pass clean spending bills that place the focus of the federal budget and appropriations process back where it belongs: on protecting the public and funding our government.