Worse than a government shutdown? Beware hidden poison pills in GOP spending bill

Poison pill riders in the House's government funding bill illustrate the GOP’s extreme agenda

Published December 16, 2017 8:30AM (EST)

 (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

The U.S. House and Senate have given themselves another reprieve, this time for two weeks, to come together on a spending package for fiscal year 2018.

Much of their challenge, appropriately, will be reaching consensus on the size of the new budget and how much money will be allocated for competing priorities, such as defense versus domestic programs. But negotiators also will be challenged by lawmakers’ tendency to use big appropriations bills as a vehicle for ideological partisan policy proposals that have little or nothing to do with budgeting.

These partisan policy riders, sometimes known as “poison pills,” often are so cravenly designed to benefit a certain special interest or indulge an unpopular viewpoint that they would stand little chance of passing if they were given an airing on their merits. (It is worth noting that these policies are distinct from bipartisan policy fixes needed to deal with disasters and suffering like the fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or emergency disaster relief.) Budget bills offer the possibility of sneaking poison pill riders into law without debate.

Lawmakers often make a cosmetic effort to wrap these clauses in budgetary clothing by prefacing them with guidelines that “none of the funds appropriated may be used” for certain activities. But the clauses’ contents lay their purposes bare.

This year, only the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a consolidated measure that wraps together the 12 appropriations bills that fund the federal government, though the U.S. Senate has moved a number of its subcommittee bills through committee. The bills are stuffed with poison pill riders, ranging from ones as parochial as prescribing the dog-walking policy at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to those as sweeping as taking a wrecking ball to pillars of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act.

The surfeit of riders in the House side’s package reveal the House majority’s comfort with abusing the budget process to dodge regular order. But beyond that, they offer a clear window into the congressional majority’s extreme agenda.

Here are some examples, though there are far too many to list them all:

Guns. In spite of the epidemic of mass shootings in recent years, the appropriations bill contains numerous barriers to the regulation of guns or ammunition. Measures block a type of ammunition from being classified as armor-piercing, ban restrictions on lead in ammunition and prohibit a requirement that certain people must disclose the sale of multiple rifles to the same person. Then there’s this: “None of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.” Enough said.

Nutrition. The United States indisputably is suffering from an obesity epidemic, which significantly harms its fiscal and physical health. Diabetes, a common result of obesity, costs more than $200 billion in annual treatment costs, much of it borne by federal programs. The federal government has some leverage to improve children’s nutrition through its role in funding school lunch programs. But the House would use this opportunity to go another direction. Its bill grants an exemption to a requirement for the use of whole grains in school lunches, permits the sale of flavored milk in school lunch programs and terminates a study Congress called for in 2009 on the effects of marketing food to children. The study was unpopular with the cable television industry.

Environment. The House bill is littered with clauses that would prevent environmental safeguards. In several instances, Congress would overrule the opinion of experts about which species are endangered or which areas are critical habitats for certain species. Other clauses would prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating runoff from concentrated animal feeding operations and from enforcing notification requirements regarding release of hazardous substances from farm animal waste.

Environmental subcategory: Carbon dioxide. The House bill is brimming with provisions on carbon dioxide, including those that would prohibit the regulation of carbon emissions, prohibit mandatory reporting of said emissions and prohibit the publication of studies on the effects of carbon emissions. Congress even tries on its scientist’s hat long enough to declare it a matter of federal policy that the burning of forest lumber is a carbon-neutral activity. Real scientists disagree.

Product safety. Table saws are the most dangerous woodworking tool. With their ability to slice off a finger in milliseconds, they cause about 4,000 amputations a year. About 15 years ago, an inventor developed a system that allowed a saw blade to detect being touched by human flesh and, miraculously, stop before it caused injury. But manufacturers were not interested. Echoing the auto industry of a half-century earlier, they said “safety doesn't sell,” according to the inventor. The House majority would ban the Consumer Product Safety Commission from creating any rule focused on blade-contact injuries on table saws.

Worker safety. Toward the end of the Obama administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration took steps to increase reporting of workplace injuries and to publicly disclose employers’ injury reports. The measure was intended to lend greater insight into trends of workplace injuries and to create an incentive for employers to run safer operations. The public disclosure portion of the rule is scheduled to take effect imminently. The House appropriations bill would kill the entire rule.

Financial advice. As part of its duty to regulate retirement benefits, the U.S. Department of Labor in 2016 issued a rule requiring financial advisers to act in the best interests of their clients. Most people probably assumed this was always the case, and would have seen the Labor Department’s rule as merely fixing an oversight. The financial advice sector and its allies, in contrast, went ballistic. Opponents’ complaints essentially amounted to an admission that financial advisers’ business model relies on ripping off their customers -- often by steering their clients’ money into less worthy investments that pay the advisers undisclosed kickbacks. The House would terminate the rule to combat fiduciary conflicts of interests.

Campaign finance rules. Often in the case of legislation that benefits a very narrow special interest, significant campaign contributions or expenditures can be found nearby. Liberals and conservatives long held a shared view on the salutary effects of transparency in political spending -- sunlight being, in the words of Louis Brandeis, the best disinfectant. But after the U.S. Supreme Court blew the lid off campaign finance limits in its 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision, conservatives had a collective change of heart. Since then, they have blocked every attempt to close political spending disclosure gaps. The House bill continues in this new tradition by prohibiting requirements that federal contractors disclose their political contributions and by banning the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission from even thinking of creating a requirement that companies disclose their political contributions.

Because appropriations bills are massive compilations of provisions, it’s not fair to assume that all of the members voting for the House appropriations bill support all of its extreme clauses. But in a way, that’s just the point. Ideological partisan proposals should be debated on a case-by-case basis and voted on as standalone measures, not rammed through in the middle of the night as part of a 1,600-page, trillion-dollar spending bill.

A year ago, the threat of President Barack Obama’s veto pen would have stopped most of these poison pill riders from making it into law. There is no reason to think that would be the case with President Donald Trump, so we must depend on congressional leadership and appropriators who are negotiating the final package to remove these poisonous policies.

But if the House appropriations bill were to land on Trump’s desk unaltered, it does have one clause that might alarm the president. It reads: “None of the funds made available in this Act may be used to disseminate information that is deliberately false or misleading.”


By Lisa Gilbert

Lisa Gilbert is vice president of legislative affairs for Public Citizen.

MORE FROM Lisa Gilbert