If you think the budget fight is over, you’re sorely mistaken. It’s just heating up.
Sure, Congress has decided how much money the government should spend overall, but not how to allocate that money among the many things the government does. And right now, the biggest sticking point involves “riders,” a term you should expect to hear a lot in the coming weeks.
So what exactly is a rider? It’s a provision that “rides” on the coattails of a must-pass bill that it otherwise seems unrelated to, often because the provision couldn’t get voted into law on its own.
Basically, it’s a legislative parasite.
These parasites are not new. One famous rider, which restricts use of government funds for abortions, has been around in some form since 1976. Riders have been used (and abused) by both parties.
But riders have been multiplying in the current Republican-controlled legislature, and they’re being applied to a broader range of policy objectives than in the past. Perhaps that’s not surprising in a Congress where fewer and fewer bills can break through the gridlock on their own. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate majority leader, has also openly endorsed using riders as a tool to curb, change or reverse White House policies.
One form of rider was unusually common in the appropriations bills that we saw this year (and that will probably serve as a template in budget negotiations). This kind of rider basically kills an existing policy by defunding it.
See, for the most part, appropriations bills have language that looks like this: “For carrying out titles I and II of the Imaginary Piece of Legislation Act, $10,000,000 shall be available.”
But lately legislators have been littering appropriations bills with language that looks more like this: “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to implement [law/rule/regulation we hate].”
In other words, a backdoor repeal. If you can’t beat ’em, defund ’em.
Can’t successfully repeal Obamacare, despite more than 50 votes to do so? No worries. Just craft a health-care appropriations bill that explicitly prevents any funds from being “used to implement, administer, enforce, or further any provision” of the Affordable Care Act.
Don’t like the White House’s proposed rule requiring brokers who give retirement advice to always act in the best interests of their clients? Simply add language to an appropriations bill barring government funds from being “used to finalize, implement, administer, or enforce” it.
Don’t like the Federal Communications Commission’s new net neutrality regulations? Don’t want government scientists researching climate change? Don’t like the laws and regulations intended to protect migratory birds, keep wetlands and waterways clean, or fulfill various other Environmental Protection Agency initiatives?
You get the idea.
This is about Congress using its “power of the purse,” as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) recently phrased it — but using that purse in the same way that an old lady walking in the bad part of town might use hers (i.e., to beat opponents into submission).
Other provisions from bills considered this year wouldn’t defund specific government initiatives entirely but instead cut funding just enough to cripple them. For example, proposed cuts to the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, which enforces minimum wage and overtime laws, would effectively prevent the division from recovering an estimated $70 million to $80 million in back wages on behalf of workers. Other provisos would roll back parts of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and pull funding promised to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
We have no way of knowing which of these riders will make it through the current round of budget negotiations. The net neutrality rider is reportedly off the table, and it seems unlikely legislators will again sink all their political capital into defunding Planned Parenthood. But you never know. Recent comments by Ryan and other senior Republicans have indicated they may throw a bone to the Freedom Caucus.
Democrats can argue, and have argued, that these “vexatious” and “ideological” riders have no place in legislation intended to keep the government up and running. And Republicans can argue, and have argued, that it would be petty for Obama to veto important spending bills just to protect some pet project.
In other words, come December, when the rider fight almost certainly threatens to trigger a government shutdown, both sides will blame one another.
I hope you like poultry, America, because a game of chicken awaits.