Hope for the End of Harmful Riders?
Members of Congress must have recently re-watched that famous Schoolhouse Rocks cartoon about how a bill becomes a law.
Every year Congress is required to pass bills funding the government for the next year by Oct 1, but in the past two and a half decades things have rarely worked that out that way. Funding has been a contentious process filled with ideological games of chicken that have wreaked havoc not only on the ability of government to function but lowered the public’s already dismal views of Congress.
This year things look like they could be different and the first example of this is the recent passage of the conference version of H.R. 5895, the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2019, a ‘minibus’ package that includes the Energy and Water, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Acts. Unlike previous years, this bill provided strong funding for clean energy programs within the Department of Energy and did so without new attempts to add policy riders that would undermine environmental protections.
While a majority of Americans strongly support funding clean energy research, they might be surprised that not everyone running the federal government agrees. Both President Trump and the House of Representatives were attempting to gut funding to these programs following the same fiscal reasoning as cutting off your nose to spite your face. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and these critical programs were funded at levels that will keep America on the right path to a clean energy future.
The other major success in this bill is that it rejects the inclusion of new policy riders designed to undermine environmental safeguards. Part of the reason why Congress has had such a difficult time passing funding bills is that even if they could agree on funding, House Republicans were insistent on using these must pass bills to change environmental protection policy, aka policy riders. These policies, which have no place in a spending bill, are widely supported so the House GOP had no chance of passing a standalone bill into law. Instead, they took funding bills hostage and were willing to shut down the government to get what they wanted. Thankfully Democrats were willing to stand up to most of these egregious and harmful demands, but the cost was often a budget process stuck in limbo.
This year seemed like it would be more of the same with the House Republicans trying to move a handful of harmful, unrelated, controversial, and often radical policy changes. Yet thanks to a fear of a government shutdown just weeks from the midterm elections, Senate Republicans made a handshake deal with the Democrats to keep these riders off the bill. This change of heart, was a surprising but welcomed development.
Is this the beginning of a new pattern, or just a pause in the old? One example of sanity is not enough to quiet doubts that this progress might stall out before the end of the year. From the environmental perspective, the Interior-Environment bill, which funds EPA and the Interior Department is a much harder bill to get passed. Instead of a handful of riders, the House is pushing a long list of terrible ideas and many of those riders, are tempting for some Republican senators to support.
Time will tell how the rest of the appropriations process plays out, but for now there is hope that things might end up getting better.