Keep the Tax Bill Clean: Republicans Should Not Permit the Keystone XL Pipeline

House Republicans are once again talking about weighing down the tax relief bill with riders designed to force the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and block clean air standards. But, even these lawmakers seem to recognize the public won’t like their political maneuverings.

Despite the trouble they got into in December over holding up the tax cut, GOP leaders want to use an effort to bring tax relief to millions of Americans—something even they say is an urgent matter—to attach a policy rider that would override President Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Keystone XL pipeline has nothing to do with the tax code, and neither this nor any other policy rider belongs on a bill to provide a tax cut that so many Americans are waiting for.  Getting a tax-cut bill through Congress is already difficult enough because of debates about how to pay for it. No one serious about supporting tax relief would make the bill even more controversial by adding an unrelated rider. A rider is simply a political maneuver to pick a fight with the president.

Congress should keep it clean. It shouldn’t consider the Keystone rider or any other unrelated measures like the effort to block clean air standards that would limit industrial pollution.

President Obama made the point well and clearly in his State of the Union when he said, “Let’s agree right here, right now:  No side issues.  No drama.  Pass the payroll tax cut without delay.”

The language Republicans are touting to approve the pipeline was proposed by Representative Lee Terry (R-NE). Republicans describe the Terry language as giving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the power to decide whether the Keystone XL should proceed or not.

Let’s be clear. The Terry measure does no such thing.

Instead, the bill mandates approval of the project. It states: “The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission shall, not later than 30 days after receipt of an application thereof, issue a permit for the construction, operation, and maintenance of the oil pipeline.”

The Terry bill is the equivalent of Congress passing a bill that gives you the right to vote, but requires you by law to vote for Obama. No one would describe that as giving you the power to make a decision. Yet Republicans describe the Terry language as giving FERC power, and many in the press have unthinkingly echoed that assertion.

In reality, Terry’s reference to FERC is just a ruse to hide the real effect of the bill: turning Congress into a permitting body. Representative Terry has gone so far as to say, “It seems to me that it makes more sense that we let the experts on pipelines make decision on whether this is a safe and sound pipeline as opposed to a political entity worried about November elections.”

The pipeline decision should indeed be in the hands of experts, but Terry himself would prevent exactly that. If Terry has his way, Congress will be approving the pipeline. His language gives FERC no authority to make a decision; it either has to sign off on the pipeline in 30 days or the pipeline gets approved without them.

But the fact that Republicans lawmakers feel the need to make it look like they are giving authority to a government agency instead of to themselves signals something important: Even they know Americans don’t want Congress to be in the business of issuing permits.  Hence the FERC fig leaf.

Speaker Boehner has said that if language approved Keystone XL doesn’t go on the tax bill, it will be added to the transportation bill—another measure Americans needs that’s already far behind schedule. A Keystone XL rider on the transportation bill would be just as irresponsible as one on the tax bill.

Republicans in Congress already forced the current decision on Keystone XL by mandating a decision before as assessment was completed and before the full route was even determined. The President has no choice at the point but to deny the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline permit. Congress should respect that determination—and preserve the health and safety of American farmland and our climate—instead of trying to undermine it through legislative maneuvers.