Victory for Americans' Health and Environment: Most Dirty Riders Kept Out of Spending Bill

Over the past few weeks, Republican lawmakers have been trying to stuff the must-pass government spending bill with policy riders designed to weaken environmental safeguards. But thanks to President Obama and Democratic leaders, dozens of the worst anti-environmental have been kept out of the spending bill that Democratic and Republican lawmakers agreed on Thursday night.

This is a victory for America’s environment and public health. The riders would have caused real harm to children living with asthma, to elders struggling with cardiac disease, to the waters we depend upon, and to the wild animals and landscapes we cherish. 

But it is a victory in a battle that we should never have had to fight.

Spending bills should not be used to rewrite bedrock environmental laws or block progress in cleaning up our air and water. Riders just slow Congress’ work on spending bills and shield major changes in law from public scrutiny. Yet all year long, Republican lawmakers have tried to use riders to benefit polluting industries and score ideological points.

Their attacks have been relentless, and as a result, some of their dirty riders remain in the spending bill, including a rider that blocks the Department of Energy from enforcing a new energy efficiency standard for light bulbs until next fiscal year.

The standard—which can be met with already available incandescent or compact florescent bulbs—will save Americans about $12 billion on energy bills. It has strong support not only from manufacturers and consumer groups, but from Republican and Democratic lawmakers as well.

Representative Fred Upton (R-MI) was a lead author of the provision that created the standard. But that was before the Tea Party emerged on the scene and turned a money-saving standard agreed upon by all stakeholders into a political punching bag. Upton’s support of what he knew to be a smart standard faded away.

The good news is the rider does not change the underlying law. States can still enforce the standard and leading manufacturers intend to start honoring it now.  But the rider will still slow progress toward a cleaner economy.

Another rider related to the Arctic will have even more long-range impacts. This one takes clean air permitting for oil companies away from the Environmental Protection Agency and gives it to the Department of Interior. This may sound like a bureaucratic matter, but it’s important to remember the EPA was originally granted authority because lawmakers knew it was more likely than Interior to put firm limits on oil companies’ pollution.

Now only will this rider make Alaska’s air dirtier, but it also demonstrates why riders are an illegitimate way of legislating. Few people besides the sponsor, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), were aware this rider was tucked into a massive spending bill. What amounts to a major change in the way air pollution is controlled in the Arctic received no scrutiny and zero debate.

Other destructive riders related to forestry and protections for big horn sheep benefited from a similar lack of transparency. But in the end, the majority of anti-environmental riders got removed from the bill.

It’s hard not to view this process as an enormous distraction. Congress could have passed a bill three months ago when the fiscal year began, but instead it created a manufactured crisis and renewed worries of government shutdowns all because of these unrelated policy riders.

Poll after poll shows that Americans value strong government protections against pollution. They don’t want Congress to weaken safeguards in backroom deals or ideological battles—especially not when those deals would expose our families to more mercury, lead, and other dangerous toxins.

There is still a chance GOP lawmakers will succeed in tacking on dangerous riders to the upcoming tax bill. But as far as the spending bill goes, American families have triumphed over polluters in the dirty rider fight.