While you’re doing your Christmas shopping, Congress is wrapping up a very unwelcome set of gifts for us. 

We are seeing literally hundreds of proposed policy “riders” tacked on to budget bills we need to pass to keep the government running   These riders couldn’t pass both houses of Congress and garner a presidential signature on their own – the way laws are supposed to be made according to our Constitution.  But now these proposals might slip through the legislative process, largely out of the public eye, because they are attached to spending bills. Most are narrow favors to special interests, or backdoor attacks on the laws that we rely on for fundamental science-based protections for public health, safety and the environment. They have almost nothing to do with the actual budget.


What are some of these gifts to corporations and trade groups?

Take the dietary guidelines. Nutrition experts give their advice, based on the best available science, to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture. But policy riders proposed in Congress would limit the ability to use this science to offer advice or design informational labels that consumers rely upon. That’s a gift to the food industry players who load down the food we eat with added sugar.

Ozone, a common pollutant linked to respiratory diseases like asthma, is regulated under the Clean Air Act. The Obama administration set a new ozone standard this year, at the least protective end of the range federal scientists suggested—but even that standard is too strong for some members of Congress, who want to tack on riders that allow for higher levels of ozone pollution. That’s a present for industrial polluters who would rather not reduce their ozone emissions in the interest of public health.

Or take the Endangered Species Act, a successful piece of legislation that relies on science to protect wildlife at risk of extinction – in many ways the protections of last resort before losing species forever. A record number of riders have been proposed to overrule science and deny protection to species like the gray wolf and the sage grouse in the name of oil and gas development and livestock ranching on public lands.

Other proposed riders would be a lovely wrapped gift to the fracking industry, preventing the Bureau of Land Management from enforcing safety requirements on fracking on public lands, and blocking the EPA from studying the effects of fracking on the water supply. There are so many riders, it’s hard to keep track of them all.  We just learned of one that would discourage scientific experts from advising the Environmental Protection Agency, while encouraging the EPA to invite more industry representatives to offer their views.

These riders would cripple important science-based policies, all to help out highly profitable industries and their trade groups.

Policy riders like these do double damage - to science and democracy. Because they contain controversial policies, they make it harder to pass spending bills and more likely that those bills will draw a veto. That means even more budgetary uncertainty and a potential shutdown of government functions, all because members of Congress insisted on tacking on unrelated policies. And because the process is so hurried and so opaque, there is little opportunity for the public to get involved in the decisions – unless you can afford a high priced lobbying firm.   That isn't how democracy should work in a government by and for the people.

There’s a straightforward, simple way to avoid both the risk of a shutdown and the pointless damage these policies would do to science and science-based policies. Congress should pass clean spending bills without trying to sneak gifts to special interests along for the ride.

Kimmell is the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Rosenberg is the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS and a former NOAA scientist.