By Celia Wexler, Union of Concerned Scientists
I try hard not to be cynical about Congress. I believe that in the House and Senate, many men and women of good will and their staffs work hard to advance policies that they believe will benefit the people they represent. Our elected representatives may disagree about what the best solutions are. But they are motivated by the desire to do good, not ill.
That sentiment is being tested as the House and Senate vote on a series of spending bills to pay for government agencies and other expenses in the coming fiscal year.
In too many cases, these spending bills sharply cut the budgets of federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, that have a crucial mission of protecting public health, our environment, and access to clean air and water.
Worse still, in this congress, these bills are also loaded down with special-interest riders so blatantly against the public interest that it is difficult to understand why any well-meaning member of Congress would ever support them. It is not that appropriations bills in the past have not contained ill-advised policy riders, it just seems like there are more of them this year, and they are more mean-spirited.
A long list of riders
For example, one of those riders was an amendment to the Senate bill funding the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services. The amendment would stop federal regulators from doing something they should have done decades ago – protect workers from exposure to silica dust. The government has been studying the harmful effects of silica dust on workers since the 1970s. But this amendment, offered at the very end of the Senate appropriations process and approved by voice vote, would require OSHA to spend up to $800,000 on a study by the National Academy of Sciences to provide “epidemiological justification” for the reducing exposure limits for workers. The rule, first initiated in 2011, also couldn’t move forward until small businesses weigh in.
Another rider in the House Agriculture-FDA spending bill would interfere in the Food and Drug Administration’s extremely careful and thorough process for regulating tobacco products, a mandate Congress gave it in 2009. In essence, the rider tells the FDA that its new rule can’t touch flavored e-cigarettes or flavored cigars currently on the market, even though there is great concern that these flavored tobacco products are popular with youngsters and teens.
The House Interior spending bill not only eviscerates the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, it includes several riders that attack the heart of the agency’s policies to reduce carbon pollution and to protect our water supply from contamination. It also interferes with science-informed decisions protecting endangered species.
A sneaky attack on public interest
There’s a common thread in all or most of these budget riders. It is the notion that spending decisions offer an opportunity to use a back door to undo policies that the public endorses without all the bother of a democratic debate.
The Supreme Court has upheld the ability of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas under the Clean Air Act. But rather than rewrite the Clean Air Act, which was a strongly bipartisan law and which Americans support, the strategy is to make it impossible for the EPA to do its work.
Likewise, a strongly bipartisan Congress approved giving the FDA the power to regulate tobacco products. But tobacco companies continue to fight on, and they have congressional champions to help them block FDA efforts through the appropriations process.
This doesn’t appear to be any policy area that the spending bills leave untouched. For example, every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services convenes expert panels advising the public on the most recent scientific thinking on nutrition and health. But because some members of Congress disagreed with some of the current recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, they are using a spending bill to direct the USDA and HHS to only adopt those recommendations that meet certain evidentiary standards; in effect, this rider blocks federal agencies from adopting a recommendation that Americans should eat less meat and more vegetables, hardly a radical idea.
The good news is that the President has made plain his opposition to these bad spending bills. And in the Senate, Democrats, pushing the Senate majority to lift the current caps on spending that Congress imposed in 2011, are threatening to block debate on all Senate spending bills. That means that the spending bills will have to receive 60 votes to move forward.
But the bad news is that these terrible ideas have been proposed, and in the compromises that Congress and the President must ultimately make to fund the government, it is difficult to know how many of these dozens of bad riders may survive.
It is up to all of us to make sure our member of Congress understands that we’ll be watching the appropriations process, and that we will object to any bad ideas getting a free “ride.”