Congress Passes Year's First Spending Bill With Plenty of Riders, Declares Pizza a Vegetable

Late last week, Congress passed the first spending bill for fiscal year (FY) 2012, 48 days after it began. The bill, known as a minibus, is a bundle of three smaller appropriations bills, and collectively, the three bills are about a billion dollars lower than their level last year. Because the remaining nine spending bills required to keep the government running have yet to be approved, the minibus includes another stopgap spending measure, designed to keep the government open until Dec. 16. However, tucked inside the minibus is a litany of restrictions on spending designed to change non-budgetary federal policy.  Even though congressional rules are supposed to prevent the practice of slipping policy initiatives into funding bills, the minibus includes 75 policy riders that affect everything from gun regulations to the weight of planes flying into New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport, and even declare that pizza is a vegetable.

[See the list of riders in the bill here.]

This spring, in the funding bill for FY 2011, House Republicans attached dozens of controversial policy riders. The riders would have created new policy on many issues, including greenhouse gases and abortion, and were inserted with little fanfare and no public debate. In effect, House Republicans were trying to create new laws by avoiding the normal legislative process. Fortunately, almost all were stripped out, except for a handful that only affected the District of Columbia.

According to an OMB Watch analysis, the minibus funding bill Congress passed on Thursday, Nov. 17 included at least 75 policy riders, some of which have been in appropriations bills for at least a decade. Over the past few weeks, as the House and the Senate conferenced their versions of the three bills, riders were added and dropped from both sets of bills. For instance, conferees dropped a rider preventing patents on human organisms, a rider that’s been attached for years, since a recent bill made the prohibition permanent. The bill also includes several new riders on firearms, including one relaxing rules on shotguns.

The conference report also changed a controversial policy rider to include language that wasn’t in either the House or Senate bill, impacting the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) rule. The GIPSA rule aims to level the playing field between livestock producers, contractors, and dealers. Unlike a similar policy rider in the House appropriations bill, the conference report’s rider does not prevent the USDA from finalizing the proposed GIPSA rule altogether. However, it effectively precludes USDA from issuing a number of the rule’s provisions that are considered crucial by the National Farmers Union and other agriculture groups.

The minibus includes a slew of other riders. It has two separate riders defunding ACORN, though the community organizing group is now defunct. Another prevents the Federal Aviation Administration from lifting weight limits at the Teterboro Airport, a provision that’s been added every year since 2003 (no other airports are specifically mentioned in the bill). The bill also includes two provisions changing the federal school lunch program, one to prevent limitations on potatoes in school lunches, and another classifying pizza as a vegetable.

With nine more appropriations bills left, which will likely be considered in one large package, Congress will be passing at least one more funding bill this year. This “omnibus” bill will include many controversial issues, including bank regulation, healthcare, and international aid, all of which will likely attract many more riders.

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