The Budget Process Shouldn’t Be a Playground for Special Interests

April 22, 2016 | 1:17 pm
Photo: Kai Schreiber./CC BY-SA (Flickr)
Yogin Kothari
Former Contributor

It’s appropriations season in Congress. Again. After passing a budget for the 2016 fiscal year in December (2.5 months late), congressional leaders are determined to get a head start on the budget process for the 2017 fiscal year. That means, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are meeting regularly to determine funding levels for federal programs and considering legislation as I write this blog.

But, as we know from last year, this also means it’s riders season. Policy riders are harmful, ideological provisions that help rig the game for special interests, and are tucked away in bills with little to no debate. Policymakers sneak inappropriate ideological riders in moving legislation because they are too controversial and divisive to pass on their own merit.

The reason they don’t want you to know about these poison pill policies is because often, these riders are special interests’ backdoor attempt to weaken science-based public protections for their own gain. And like clockwork, they continue to appear, and lawmakers continue to hope that no one will notice.

We have won this battle before

In last year’s spending fight, we defeated several poison pill riders, including:

This is just a handful of the numerous divisive riders that we defeated because of the strong public pressure placed on members of Congress. Last year, nearly 200 groups came together and held meetings, made phone calls, and posted on social media, to make sure lawmakers knew that people were paying attention and opposed all ideological riders. To ensure that Congress passes a clean budget this year with no riders that undermine our landmark science-based safeguards that protect public health, safety, and the environment, we need to do more of the same.

The first of many

We’ve already seen one ideological rider that pulls directly from a special interest talking point. Buried on page 71 of a committee report, lawmakers are strongly discouraging the Food and Drug Administration from including an added sugars line in an update to the Nutrition Facts label.

This type of anti-science rider, a blatant delay tactic aimed at preventing consumers from accessing information to make healthier food choices, has no place in a process that should be focused on ensuring that the agencies that protect public health and the environment have the appropriate amount of resources to do their job. Instead of trying to delay or rollback vital safeguards, Congress should be focused on fully funding the federal government.

What else can we expect?

This is just the beginning of the avalanche of policy riders that will pop up in spending bills over the next several weeks.

These sneak attacks on the role of science in policymaking have a real impact on our lives and put the progress we’ve made on critical issues at risk. When our federal agencies and state governments are already struggling to protect families, these attacks further erode the government’s capacity to protect us. And more often than not, low-income communities of color that already bear the biggest burden of broken promises of access to clean air and water, untainted food, and safe workplaces, have the most to lose.

So what else will Congress try to rollback when they think you’re not paying attention?

  • A rider that could take significant science-based policy decisions out of the hands of relevant agencies and instead require congressional approval for public protections. This would hamstring agencies and prevent them from moving forward with any proposal that could improve public health and safety (if this sounds familiar to you, that’s because we’ve talked about it in the past here, here, and here). A version of this has already been submitted as an amendment to the Energy-Water spending bill being considered in the Senate.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency’s new science-based ozone standard. We’ve already seen legal challenges and new legislation attacking the new science-based safeguard that would help reduce toxins that impact the air we breathe. Why not add a rider to the list of attacks?
  • Multiple riders that will undermine the Endangered Species Act. One of the most successful science-based environmental laws, we have seen a record number of riders and other attacks that would negatively impact the government’s ability to use science to protect our nation’s most imperiled species.

Because of all of these attacks, and many more, it is important to stay in touch with your representatives in Congress and let them know that there is no place for ideological riders that undermine science and public health in spending bills. Call them, email them, even tweet at them! And keep checking back for more updates on the latest attacks and opportunities for defending against them. We need to keep the pressure on, and let them know that we are watching.

Featured photo: Kai Schreiber/CC BY-SA (Flickr)