Hardly a year goes by without a high-stakes, year-end battle over the federal budget, and this brinksmanship often risks a disastrous government shutdown. The current focus on passing the Build Back Better plan means that we may have even less time to ensure that this year’s omnibus spending package is brought to completion.
In addition to funding levels, this year’s appropriations fight will feature a battle over a series of poison pill policy riders known as “legacy riders” that have been in the appropriations bills in previous years. These measures attack women’s health, our environment, children, workers, and consumers, and fuel political corruption.
Importantly, Democrats in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House have made a firm commitment to keep these harmful measures out of federal spending legislation this year, because they never belonged in the first place.
Over the past several decades, but with increasing frequency in recent years, conservative lawmakers have quietly inserted an array of toxic measures into obscure provisions of lengthy, difficult-to-read appropriations bills to conceal their presence.
These special favors for big corporations and ideological extremists are unpopular and highly controversial, which is why they could not become law through regular order. Unfortunately, once added, they often remain embedded in federal spending bills year after year – becoming legacy riders – until lawmakers decide to pick a fight during budget negotiations and try to take them out.
In great news, that’s exactly what House Democratic appropriators did over the summer. And the Senate majority followed suit in the spending bills they rolled out in October, removing dozens of legacy poison pills.
It is a welcome change to see lawmakers in both chambers of Congress removing legacy riders. Much is at stake.
One longtime poison pill that came out was the infamous Hyde Amendment – a discriminatory ban on coverage of abortion care for those who receive health insurance through Medicaid. Appropriators also removed a variety of Hyde-like riders targeting the District of Columbia, the Peace Corps, and global health assistance programs. They also took out the Weldon Amendment, which allows hospitals, insurance companies, and individual health care professionals to deny care, coverage, and referrals for abortion.
Appropriators also removed an array of anti-environmental riders, including one blocking the addition of the Sage Grouse to the list of endangered species. Another two set up clean air exemptions for factory farms. And several allowed more climate pollution.
One 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 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 remain in the dark as to what is and isn’t permissible, leaving them at the mercy of potentially subjective and arbitrary enforcement.
None of these poison pills ever belonged in federal spending bills, which should be about funding our government – not sneaking through noxious policies that could never become law on their own merits.
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 public deserves a 2022 budget that not only addresses the needs of the present but fully funds important public services and invests in a better future. Congress and the White House must finish the appropriations process with clean spending bills that take out all the poison pills.
Women’s health, our environment, our campaign finance system, and more should not be bargaining chips or sacrificed to pay to for vital public services and keeping our government open.
Lisa Gilbert is executive vice president of Public Citizen and co-chairs the Clean Budget Coalition.