Congress Strips Out Many Controversial Riders from Funding Bills, but Leaves Public in the Dark

Even though the 2012 fiscal year (FY) began more than two months ago, Congress only recently put the finishing touches on this year’s budget. Over the weekend, the House and the Senate approved a funding package wrapping all of the outstanding annual appropriations bills into one. In doing so they stripped out many, but not all, of the controversial legislative provisions, known as policy riders.

The overall spending level for this year’s budget had been set in the summer by the debt ceiling deal, but it took the end of the so-called Super Committee to clear the way for the year’s final spending bills. Last month, Congress passed three appropriations bills – Transportation-Housing, Commerce-Justice-Science, and Agriculture – which had few controversial riders. Last week, Congress reached an agreement on the remaining nine bills, which fund everything from the Defense Department to Congress itself, and are worth more than a trillion dollars.

Three of the remaining bills - Financial Services, Labor-Health and Human Services-Education, and Interior-Environment - had threatened to hold up the entire process. They contained some of the most controversial issues Congress is currently grappling with, such as financial regulatory reform, the health care overhaul, and environmental protections. Congressional Republicans are intent on rolling back some of the gains Democrats have made in these areas over the past few years, and the battle had been playing out, in part, in these funding bills. For months, Republicans tried to defund important safeguards and reforms or undo them completely with targeted policy riders.

In the past, OMB Watch prepared an analysis of the annual appropriations bills, examining the policy riders they contained. For instance, we found more than 75 riders on the first three bills passed this year. However, with this most recent appropriations package, Congress deliberately left the public in the dark by releasing the bill’s language only days before final votes where scheduled. The bill stretches almost 1,400 pages, and it would have been impossible to fully catalogue all of its riders, never mind perform any meaningful analysis of them, before the bill’s passage (the House released the bill only three days before the final vote).

Even though the bill has already been approved by both houses of Congress, reporters and public interest groups continue to sift through it, trying to find out what Congress actually passed. While it seems that negotiators stripped the nine funding bills of their most controversial policy riders, many were left in. One rider prevents the government from enforcing new light bulb efficiency standards, while others prevent funding for a range of programs in Washington, DC. Another rider prevents the administration from fully implementing a proposed executive order which would have required contractors to disclose their contributions to political candidates when bidding on government contracts. A fourth, highlighted by the Natural Resources Defense Council, potentially weakens clean air permitting. With previous bills as a guide, it’s likely that there are other riders hidden in this spending package.

Of course, the budget process isn’t supposed to work this way. Ideally, both houses pass budget resolutions, and all twelve appropriations bills work their way through committees and on to the House and Senate floors in order to become law. That way, committees can hold hearings on important issues and question government officials in public, and there’s plenty of time for constituents to weigh in before any bills reach a final vote. Legislators are also supposed to focus spending bills on just that - spending. Provisions on non-spending policy issues, such as environmental standards and energy efficiency rules, should be debated separately and openly, not buried inside an immense bill deliberately kept away from public view.

Hopefully, this process won’t be repeated next year. If Congress can get a faster start on the appropriations process and allow the normal, more transparent process to work, it will be harder to slip in the hidden policy riders that plagued this year's spending bills.

back to Blog