Appropriations Policy Riders: They’re Ba-ack!

Earlier this year, when Congress was finishing the long-overdue budget for fiscal year 2011, the House tried to use the must-pass spending bill to force adoption of dozens of "policy riders." These provisions would have done everything from preventing the regulation of greenhouse gases to prohibiting certain loans to mohair farmers. Fortunately, almost all of them were stripped out of the final bill. However, now, as Congress moves toward finishing the FY 2012 budget, Republicans in the House and Senate are once again attempting to bend the budget process to enact non-budget policies that can't pass on their own merits. Riders have no place in congressional spending bills.

With the new fiscal year already four weeks old, Congress is starting to get serious about the 2012 budget. Senate leadership is hoping to kick-start the appropriations process by passing the first of several "minibuses," this one combining three bills, which together fund the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, with some science programs thrown in as well.

According to analysis by OMB Watch staff, these three Senate bills contain at least 60 separate riders. Even though funding levels for the federal agencies covered by the bills are relatively noncontroversial, the attached riders contain hot-button issues. For instance, there are at least 12 policy riders limiting the government's power to regulate firearms, ranging from preventing the creation of a gun tracking database to making it easier to export firearm parts to Canada. There are two riders on abortion rights, even though none of these agencies handle much health policy. There are even two separate riders in the minibus preventing ACORN from receiving funding, despite the fact the community organizing group no longer exists. This is a bipartisan and bicameral problem, with both House and Senate appropriations bills full of riders.

The problem with policy riders, some of which have been regularly added to the appropriations bills for years, is that they subvert the normal legislative process. Normally, policy is created and debated in the committee charged with overseeing a particular set of issues and with overseeing the federal agency responsible for implementing and enforcing said policies. Including significant policy changes in appropriations bills subverts the normal processes of law-making, where elected representatives use hearings to gather information, to question experts, and to engage in debates that air a range of public opinions on a specific policy topic. Riders attached to appropriations bills do not undergo this level of scrutiny.

And when policy riders are added as amendments to bills, there is even less time for open and thoughtful evaluation. Senators have filed dozens of amendments to the current minibus, in addition to the riders already attached. Many of these amendments are quite radical. One proposed amendment would add a complex reporting requirement for federal employees working on climate change. There is almost no disclosure on which amendments the Senate is voting or notice about when the votes occur, effectively leaving the public locked out of debates on important policy matters. In the last week of debate, eight additional riders were added to the minibus as amendments, with more pending this week.

Fortunately, some opposition is building against these riders. In the House, Democrats are rallying behind a call to remove all riders from the appropriations bills, with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) leading the charge. The White House has likewise stated its opposition to riders, stating in a recent letter, "The Administration strongly opposes ideological and political provisions in these [appropriations] bills," indicating a willingness to veto any bill that goes too far.

While the Senate is still debating the current minibus and its many amendments, we urge Congress to reject any and all policy riders in its FY 2012 appropriations bills. Policy debates should occur in the open and be accessible to the public, not buried in spending bills voted on hurriedly without appropriate consideration.

Download the list of policy riders in the first minibus here.

Image by Flickr user nixter used under a Creative Commons license.

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