Why Senate staffers need to cut legacy riders from spending bill

Why Senate staffers need to cut legacy riders from spending bill
© Stefani Reynolds

It will be a busy few weeks for Capitol Hill staffers in charge of drafting spending bills. Before lawmakers left town for the August recess, they passed a budget agreement lifting federal spending caps and the debt ceiling for two years. Our lawmakers in the House had already drafted, marked up, and passed several spending bills before the recess. The budget deal has set the stage for the Senate to begin doing the same.

With the funding deadline fast approaching at the end of September, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he is eager to begin marking up the fiscal 2020 spending bills as soon as lawmakers return to Washington one month from now. So while senators will spend the next few weeks chatting up their constituents back home, their appropriations staffers will be hustling in a frenzied dash to draft a dozen spending bills.

The context of the budget deal included an agreement to set aside poison pill riders. That commentary does not discuss legacy riders, which are ideological poison pills that members of Congress were forced to swallow so they could pass previous spending bills. Those policies get carried over from one budget cycle to the next, sometimes for decades. The House spending bills removed many legacy riders that blocked crucial campaign finance rules, key public health measures, and important environmental protections. Senate appropriators should certainly also remove them.

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The legacy campaign finance policies wrongly prevent the Securities and Exchange Commission from finishing a rule requiring corporations to disclose their political spending, obstruct a rule that would require the disclosure of political spending by federal government contractors, and stop the Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury Department from clarifying the rules on the political activity of nonprofit organizations.

Some of the legacy public health riders single out initiatives and programs in the District of Columbia, including health care funding for women and the decriminalization of marijuana. The other public health riders target nutritional guidelines, family planning funding for the United Nations, and federal studies of toxic chemicals. The legacy environmental riders block several rules aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, endangered species protections for the greater sage grouse, limits on lead used in ammunition for hunting that poisons the environment, and much more.

Measures that let corporations game the political system, interfere with the independence of the District of Columbia, shut down critical public health protections, and attack our environment do not belong in federal spending legislation year after year. Senate appropriators and their staffers should make sure they are removed from the spending bills.

Once lawmakers return from the August recess, senators will have just three weeks to mark up and pass all of their appropriations bills out of committee and send them on to the floor by the deadline at the end of September. Senators should not insist on keeping any policies not in the public interest that the House already voted to remove. If they do, they will be throwing a wrench in the process and risking yet another costly and politically embarrassing government shutdown in early October.

It would be reckless to risk a disruptive shutdown over bad legacy items that never belonged. It would be unprincipled to do so after agreeing to a budget deal that calls for no poisonous provisions. Senate appropriators and their staffers have their work cut out for them and very little time to complete it. They should leave out such old policies that harm the public.

Lisa Gilbert is the vice president of legislative affairs for Public Citizen and one of the chairs of the Clean Budget Coalition of over 200 organizations.