Why You Should Be Paying Attention to the Upcoming Budget Fight

September 12, 2016 | 10:32 am
Yogin Kothari
Former Contributor

When it comes to Congress, we know that budgets are about more than just money. Back in April, I warned that we shouldn’t let the federal budget process become a playground for special interests. Basically, with little to no debate, policymakers will exploit the process and attempt to sneak in harmful, ideological provisions that undermine the use of science in the policymaking process and help rig the system for special interests.

Congress must pass a federal spending bill to keep the government open past September 30 (Flickr user James Palinsad).

Congress must pass a federal spending bill to keep the government open past September 30 (Photo: James Palinsad/Flickr).

Fast forward to today. As Congress opens discussions on what a long-term budget deal will include, it’s important for us to let our elected officials know that when they do pass a final budget, they need to make sure that it’s a clean budget, with no “poison pill” riders, or ideological policies that are deal-breakers and could lead to a government shutdown.

And with countless families throughout the country—especially lower-income communities of color that live on the fenceline of public health, environmental, and safety hazards—without access to clear air to breathe and safe water to drink, we cannot afford to let Congress weaken critical science-based safeguards by abusing the budget process.

Anti-science poison pills we’re watching out for

What are some of the harmful proposals that are being discussed as potential poison pill riders in these must-pass spending bills? Here are some of the proposed ones we’re concerned about:

  • Proposals that would hamstring the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from using science and data to finalize strong public health and environmental protections. We’ve already seen poison pill riders that would hinder the agency’s ability to work on any science-based safeguards, including the recently passed bipartisan legislation to improve chemical safety, and the implementation of the Clean Power Plan. We’ve also seen attacks on specific public health and safety rules that the EPA is currently working on.
  • A proposal to continue the ban on gun research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This one’s pretty self-explanatory, and is rooted in zero common sense. We need more evidence to inform our policymaking, especially around such a controversial topic.
  • Proposals that would undermine the ability of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to use the best available science to implement the protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act. We’ve seen more than 10 poison pill riders that would delay, prevent, or otherwise negatively impact science-based protections for iconic species, such as the gray wolf and the sage grouse.
  • Proposals to prevent all federal agencies from working on science-based public protections. While there are plenty of riders that attack specific science-based rules, these poison pill riders are the most insidious in my humble opinion, because they could bring the critical work of multiple agencies, whose respective missions are to use science to protect workers, consumers, vulnerable communities, and everyone else, to a grinding halt. They are frequently hidden under the guise of accountability and transparency. This year, we’ve already seen a proposal that would place a moratorium on science-based rulemaking until next year, legislation to politicize the finalization of vital safeguards, and more.

This by no means is an exhaustive list. There are hundreds of ideological policy riders that have been introduced over the last several months as lawmakers have worked on spending bills. UCS has been working with a broad coalition of nearly 200 groups to educate lawmakers and their staff on the importance of passing a clean budget with no riders, and informing them of all the poison pill riders that are being proposed.

Stuck on replay

We’ve seen this playbook before. There are several examples of the hundreds of poison pill riders that House and Senate lawmakers have sneakily attached to their respective chamber’s funding bills.

Just a few months ago, a poison pill rider to stop the EPA’s plan to modernize chemical facility safety was added on to a House spending bill with little debate.

In 2015, we successfully fought off a number of riders that would’ve undermined the science-based ozone standard, delay the long-awaited (and now finalized) silica rule, interfere with the Food and Drug Administration’s work on regulating tobacco products, and more.

In 2014, we unfortunately saw Congress target an iconic bird, and run an end-around on the science-based process that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has in place to protect biodiversity.

And since 1996, we have seen Congress continue to enact the ban on gun violence research at the CDC through the budget process, even though gun tragedies continue to occur and have a disparate impact on African American and Latino communities.

I could go on and on and on. The point is, we’ve seen this movie before and we know what to expect.

The current state of play

The federal budget is about more than just money. It's critical that we push for a clean budget with no riders (Flickr user 401(K) 2012).

The federal budget is about more than just money. It’s critical that we push for a clean budget with no riders (Flickr user 401(K) 2012).

As I write this blog, Congress has 18 days to pass a budget to keep the federal government open past September 30. I largely expect lawmakers will succeed in doing so. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) has already indicated that he is working to pass legislation to keep the federal government through December 9.

Then, Congress will have to reach a second (and hopefully final) agreement to keep the federal government operating through September 2017. Deliberations around the long-term budget deal have already begun.

That’s why we need to do everything we can to ensure that these attacks on science do not become law. Poison pill policy riders have no place in the budget negotiations. If included in the short-term or the final agreement, these anti-science poison pills, which are effectively handouts for special interests, will roll back landmark science-based public health and safety protections such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Further, they will severely hinder the ability of agency scientists to do their job and fulfill their mission of protecting the public interest.

Join me and spend the next few months regularly telling your representatives to pass a clean budget with no riders.