A Holiday "Gift" We Could Do Without

November 20, 2015 | 2:23 pm
Celia Wexler
Former contributor
Riders are as welcome as a holiday case of the flu.

Riders are as welcome as a holiday case of the flu.

To most of us, December is a time for cookies, gifts and holiday parties. But if your job is advocating for science and democracy in Washington, D.C., the month of December is far less cheery: This is  the time for a budget showdown.

The House and Senate and the President all must agree on spending bills for the 2016 fiscal year, bills that should have been voted on by October 1.

Those decisions are being made right now. Deadline for spending bills is December 11. Figuring out spending is always difficult. What makes the process downright dangerous is the presence of hundreds of budget “riders”—provisions about public policy that hitch a ride on must-pass bills, often with little public notice or scrutiny.

Last June, I wrote about some of these riders. I wish I could say that the problem has been solved. But it hasn’t. Indeed, it seems that every day, we find a new rider that would harm public health, the environment and agency science.

These riders would be holiday “gifts” from individual members of Congress to please deep-pocketed special interests that want to place profits above public health, safety and the environment. For the rest of us, a rider-laden spending bill would be as welcome as a holiday case of the flu.

Indeed, in the environmental arena alone, our colleagues have identified well over 100 dangerous policy riders in pending budget bills, or about triple what they’ve seen in previous years. Fortunately, the urgency of the problem has galvanized organizations working for worker safety, public health, civil rights, a clean environment, consumer protections, and a host of other issues to come together to oppose all of these ideological riders and to push for a “clean” budget.

Here are a few riders that the Center for Science and Democracy is most concerned about:

Political interference in the dietary guidelines: Every five years, the US Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services convene a panel of nutrition experts to give science-based advice to Americans about how to eat healthily. This should be pretty noncontroversial, but there are riders in both House and Senate spending bills that would meddle with that expert advice. What’s upset Congress is the idea that the dietary guidelines should not only address our health but the health of the planet as well.

A House rider imposes a new standard for scientific evidence underpinning any changes to the 2010 guidelines that is so high it would be virtually impossible to give any meaningful advice. There is ample scientific evidence that eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, along with low-fat dairy and fish, helps reduce the incidence of type 2 diabetes and obesity. But the guidelines could not make the connection between these recommendations and their role in improving our health in specific ways.

A Senate rider would require that the guidelines address only diet and nutrition and nothing else. Reminding Americans of the importance of both diet and exercise in maintaining health would be out of bounds. And while the guidelines could still recommend reductions in sugar intake, they could not endorse giving consumers more information about added sugars through the Food and Drug Administration’s nutrition facts panel, or other food product labeling. Both these riders could delay the guidelines and/or render them much less useful.

Attacking a science-informed ozone rule: The Environmental Protection Agency, after much deliberation and informed by the conclusions of a science advisory panel, proposed a new standard to reduce the level of ozone permitted in the air we breathe. Ground-level ozone, which results from industrial pollution and auto emissions, greatly exacerbates asthma and other respiratory illnesses. An estimated one in ten American school children has asthma.

Many critics felt the ozone standard wasn’t low enough to fully protect public health. But even this modest attempt to reduce our exposure to pollution was opposed by some members of Congress. A rider would block the EPA from implementing a new ozone standard until most counties in the U.S. (85 percent) are complying with the current standard. The EPA should set the standard based on protecting our health, not on how easy it is to comply with it. This rider is a delaying tactic that defeats the science and harms the public.

Rolling back efforts to enhance fracking safety: A House rider would deny funds to the federal Bureau of Land Management to implement its new regulation imposing safety requirements on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on federal lands. If that wasn’t bad enough, another rider tries to prevent the EPA from even studying the potential impacts of fracking on our water supply. The federal government has left fracking regulation largely to the states, but federal regulators should have the authority to determine what it will permit on public lands, our environmental legacy. And citizens living in areas considering fracking ought to be able to benefit from high-quality research about its potential impacts on their drinking water. These riders fly in the face of bedrock American values.

Undermining the Endangered Species Act: A record number of riders are proposed in both the House and Senate to attack the Endangered Species Act and the government’s ability to use science to inform its decisions to protect the gray wolf, the greater sage grouse, and other species at risk.

Indeed, 20 pro-environment Senators were so alarmed, they wrote to the President this month, asking him to stay strong in his defense of agency efforts to preserve our biodiversity.

Sabotaging democracy

What makes this rider fight so deplorable is the fact that legislative attacks are mostly happening in secret. In a democracy, members of Congress can challenge the Clean Air Act or the dietary guidelines, or advocate for no regulation of fracking. But they should do it out in the open, in a debate, where we all can hear their arguments, and they can be challenged.

Instead, riders are like chips in a high-stakes poker game. How much do you want funding for a crucial federal program? How many riders will you need to accept to convince me to go along? Who will be the first to fold? Who will be blamed if there is a budget stalemate and the government shuts down?

Public engagement is crucial

Our Center for Science and Democracy has been working with close to 200 environmental, labor, public health, faith, campaign finance, civil rights, social justice, and consumer groups to tell Congress to pass a “Clean” budget – one without these damaging ideological riders.

We’ve been meeting with members of Congress, Congressional leaders, and with White House officials to make our request crystal clear: A budget laden with harmful riders is not acceptable.

The good news is: We live in a democracy. Every voter needs to deliver the same message to Congress: Pass a “clean” budget bill. It’s a simple request, but it will make a world of difference.