House Republicans See Opportunity in Appropriations Bills

Republicans are stepping up efforts to insert special provisions — including some that are partisan or ideological.

Congressman Peter Roskam of Illinois speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
April 21, 2014, 4:12 p.m.

In a re­cent memo to law­makers, House Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers ticked off some of their less­er-known vic­tor­ies in the fisc­al 2014 ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess. A pro­hib­i­tion on fund­ing for the renov­a­tion of United Na­tions headquar­ters in New York made the list. So did a meas­ure pro­hib­it­ing the En­ergy De­part­ment from halt­ing the pro­duc­tion of in­can­des­cent light bulbs.

Now, as a new ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess be­gins, they hope to do it again, though per­haps this time on a lar­ger scale.

Re­pub­lic­ans are step­ping up ef­forts to in­sert spe­cial pro­vi­sions — in­clud­ing some that are par­tis­an or ideo­lo­gic­al — in­to fisc­al 2015 ap­pro­pri­ations bills, ac­cord­ing to memos from Re­pub­lic­an House lead­ers. And Demo­crats will be do­ing the same. The meas­ures could im­pact fund­ing in areas ran­ging from abor­tion and the en­vir­on­ment to U.N. activ­it­ies.

Re­pub­lic­an law­makers have been en­cour­aged by lead­ers to con­sider next week’s House votes on the Mil­it­ary Con­struc­tion and Vet­er­ans Af­fairs as well as the Le­gis­lat­ive Branch ap­pro­pri­ations bills as the be­gin­ning of an “op­por­tun­ity” to en­act con­ser­vat­ive policies through policy riders, many of which couldn’t pass as stand-alone bills.

The two bills are the first of a dozen an­nu­al spend­ing meas­ures due for com­ple­tion by the start of the new fisc­al year Oct. 1. Neither has tra­di­tion­ally been a vehicle for more-con­tro­ver­sial policy amend­ments, but later bills are ex­pec­ted to in­clude stronger ef­forts.

“We view the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess much dif­fer­ently than in years past,” says a memo to Re­pub­lic­ans from Dav­id Mork, chief of staff to Rep. Peter Roskam, the chief deputy whip for the House GOP.

The two-year budget deal reached in Decem­ber set top-line spend­ing for 2015 at $1.014 tril­lion and al­lowed a more tra­di­tion­al ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess in which com­mit­tees con­sider pro­pos­als and amend­ments.

“The ad­vant­age this presents for us is great­er op­por­tun­ity to in­flu­ence the pri­or­it­ies and policies that will be in­cluded,” the memo said.

Of course, not everything in­ser­ted in the House will make it through the Sen­ate, and vice versa. And law­makers may not even pass 12 sep­ar­ate bills, opt­ing in­stead for om­ni­bus le­gis­la­tion.

But a hint of the ef­forts that might lie ahead was spelled out in a sep­ar­ate doc­u­ment from Roskam’s of­fice, which pro­claimed, “There were a host of policy wins achieved through the FY14 ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess that serve as a found­a­tion and ex­ample for what we can be­gin to work on for FY15.”

Among the pro­vi­sions lis­ted as vic­tor­ies are a series of an­ti­abor­tion meas­ures in­ser­ted in­to at least four dif­fer­ent ap­pro­pri­ations bills; a pro­vi­sion ex­empt­ing live­stock pro­du­cers from the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency’s green­house-gas reg­u­la­tions; a pro­hib­i­tion on any fund­ing be­ing used to trans­fer Guantanamo Bay de­tain­ees to the United States and for con­struc­tion or ac­quis­i­tion of a pris­on in the U.S. to house such de­tain­ees; and a re­duc­tion in EPA staff­ing to the low­est levels since 1989. It also cited the pro­vi­sions con­cern­ing the U.N. and the in­can­des­cent bulb.

“The mem­ber re­quest data­base is now open,” the memo says, in­vit­ing pro­pos­als for policy riders from GOP law­makers.

In fact, Con­gress has been tack­ing policy riders onto ap­pro­pri­ations bills since the 1870s — and they’ve been con­tro­ver­sial al­most from the be­gin­ning, of­ten used as a back­door way to tie the hands of a pres­id­ent and his ad­min­is­tra­tion. As­sist­ance to rebels in Nicaragua, mil­it­ary activ­it­ies in South­east Asia, air bags for autos, and re­li­gious activ­it­ies in schools are among the areas af­fected by such bills over the years.

Steve El­lis, vice pres­id­ent of Tax­pay­ers for Com­mon Sense, said riders can some­times be tar­geted at ad­mir­able goals and even save tax­pay­ers money. But he said they are de­signed to be slipped in­to must-pass le­gis­la­tion, without giv­ing watch­dogs or the pub­lic much chance at eval­u­ation. “Be­cause they’re of­ten con­tro­ver­sial and would just get stripped out — they are in­ten­ded to go un­der the radar, be in­vis­ible,” El­lis said.

By con­trast, one of the big­ger fights already shap­ing up over policy riders is tak­ing shape very pub­licly. Demo­crat­ic Reps. Mike Thompson and Eliza­beth Esty, vice chairs of the House Gun Vi­ol­ence Pre­ven­tion Task Force, sent a let­ter last month ur­ging House Speak­er John Boehner and Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi to re­ject riders that block ef­forts to pre­vent gun vi­ol­ence. The let­ter was signed by 106 law­makers.

Gun-re­lated riders, they com­plained, “pre­vent the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health from con­duct­ing re­search on the causes of gun vi­ol­ence. They re­strict law en­force­ment’s abil­ity to track and com­bat the spread of il­leg­al guns. And they harm ef­forts to re­duce and pre­vent gun vi­ol­ence.”

They ad­ded: “The Amer­ic­an people de­serve an open de­bate on these back­door le­gis­lat­ive tac­tics that do noth­ing but make our com­munit­ies less safe.”

Of course, how policy riders will fare in the 2015 pro­cess is still un­clear, as is wheth­er Con­gress can ac­tu­ally com­plete 12 spend­ing bills. The two 2015 ap­pro­pri­ations bills now writ­ten and set for a vote next week both in­clude sev­er­al riders, though noth­ing con­tro­ver­sial has sur­faced yet.

For in­stance, The Mil­Con-VA bill in­cludes a dir­ec­tion lim­it­ing “the use of funds for pub­li­city of pro­pa­ganda de­signed to sup­port or de­feat le­gis­la­tion pending be­fore Con­gress.” And the Le­gis­lat­ive Branch bill in­cludes a pro­hib­i­tion on funds used by the Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice “to pub­lish or pre­pare ma­ter­i­al to be is­sued by the Lib­rary of Con­gress un­less ap­proved by the ap­pro­pri­ate com­mit­tees.”

The price tag of the Le­gis­lat­ive Branch bill, which would con­tin­ue the salary freeze for Con­gress in place since 2010, is de­scribed by the Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee as $3.3 bil­lion (ex­clud­ing Sen­ate-only items). This is the same as the fisc­al 2014 level, and it is $122.5 mil­lion be­low the pres­id­ent’s re­quest.

The Mil­Con-VA bill provides $71.5 bil­lion in dis­cre­tion­ary fund­ing, which is $1.8 bil­lion be­low the 2014 level. While it provides less fund­ing for mil­it­ary con­struc­tion, it in­creases fund­ing to vet­er­ans pro­grams by $1.5 bil­lion.

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