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Riders on the Budget Storm

Policy Proposals Unrelated to the Budget Could Blow Up a Deal

SOURCE: AP/Alex Brandon

The House budget deal may founder on a host of policy proposals that many conservatives in the House are insisting be included in the budget legislation.

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Democratic leadership has been bending over backward to find a budget compromise that Republicans in the House of Representatives will accept—to the point of accepting spending cuts that would be deeply harmful to the country. It is, however, proving to be a Sisyphean task to find agreement with Tea Party extremists who seem unwilling to budge an inch and are effectively calling the shots. Even if Republicans and Democrats do agree on an overall spending level, the whole deal could be derailed by House conservatives insisting on special provisions called “riders” that have little to nothing to do with deficit reduction. That’s a twist even Sisyphus himself would shake his head at.

To recap briefly: Last year President Barack Obama laid out his vision for overall discretionary spending levels for fiscal year 2011. When the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives this year, their leadership initially demanded a level of spending approximately $70 billion below the president’s level. That wasn’t enough for the Tea Party members, who wanted a level $100 billion below the president’s. So the GOP leadership withdrew their initial position and adopted the Tea Party’s.

The first shutdown deadline loomed, so Democratic leadership agreed to a short-term extension that set discretionary spending levels $44 billion below the president’s initial proposal. Two weeks later, they agreed to another $6 billion in cuts to again avoid a shutdown. That’s where we are today. The government is currently operating with discretionary spending levels almost exactly halfway between the president’s position and the Tea Party position.

You might think that with a divided government, a compromise right in the middle would be acceptable for both sides. But you’d be wrong. Conservatives are demanding even more and reports indicate that even though Democratic leadership has offered another $20 billion in cuts, the Tea Party appears unwilling to accept anything less than the full $100 billion.

But even if Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) can convince the Tea Party caucus to accept something slightly less than total victory on overall spending levels, the deal still may founder on a host of policy proposals that many conservatives in the House are insisting be included in the budget legislation. These so-called “riders” are an attempt to use the spending bill as a vehicle to enact major policy changes even though those changes would actually increase spending. H.R. 1, the spending bill the House of Representatives passed, includes dozens of these riders.

Here are 10 riders conservatives slipped into H.R. 1 for reasons completely independent of deficit reduction.

Blocking funding to implement the Affordable Care Act

H.R. 1 would ban any funding used to implement the Affordable Care Act, the landmark health care reform law enacted last year. This provision would not help balance the budget, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, or CBO, determined it would increase the deficit by $5.7 billion over the next 10 years. The CBO also estimates that fully repealing health care reform, as some conservatives have proposed, would increase the deficit by $210 billion.

The goal here is to block the implementation of a major accomplishment of the president and the previous Democratic conference in bringing down health care costs for all, reducing the federal budget deficit, and strengthening our economy.

Banning funding for implementing financial regulatory reform

H.R. 1 includes measures that would ban funding for the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection and substantially reduce resources for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, or CFTC. These are both critical elements of the financial reform passed by Congress and signed by the president to address regulatory deficiencies laid bare by the financial market collapse and the Great Recession. These provisions would prohibit the implementation of vital consumer protections designed to provide much-needed oversight of Wall Street and to protect ordinary Americans from the kinds of damaging practices that led directly to the recent economic turmoil.

This rider would also undermine regulators’ ability to protect consumers from commodity speculation that drives up prices on goods such as gasoline. The CFTC is responsible for policing commodity trades to ensure there is no market or price manipulation. There are indications that speculators have played a role in the recent 25 percent oil price hike over the past month. New data released by CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton shows speculators have increased their number of energy futures contracts by 64 percent since June 2008.

With more trades and fewer inspectors, oil price spikes are more likely to occur, raising gasoline prices for American families. Michael J. Fox, of the Gasoline & Automotive Service Dealers of America, testified before the House Natural Resources Committee on March 31, 2011, that “the fastest way to $6 gasoline is to cut the funding to the CFTC.”

Blocking the Environmental Protection Agency from reducing carbon dioxide pollution from power plants and refineries

H.R. 1 includes an amendment that would prevent the EPA from establishing carbon dioxide pollution reductions as mandated by the Clean Air Act. EPA would be forced to discontinue the research and other efforts of its scientists, engineers, and economists to establish safeguards from this pollutant that comes from huge emitters like coal-fired power plants and oil refineries. Preventing EPA from fulfilling its responsibilities to protect public health is opposed by many public health organizations such as the American Lung Association.

This is part of a conservative pattern of blocking public efforts to address the challenge of climate change and doing the fossil fuel industry’s bidding.

Blocking the EPA from reducing mercury and other pollutants from cement plants

H.R. 1 also includes a measure that would block the EPA’s ability to require reductions of mercury, arsenic, dioxin, acid gases, and other toxic pollutants from the cement production industry. Mercury is a known neurotoxin that can harm babies’ ability to learn, and cement facilities are the third-largest domestic source of mercury pollution.

The American Lung Association opposes H.R. 1 because of this and the bill’s other antienvironmental provisions. It notes that the proposal would “result in millions of Americans—including children, seniors, and people with chronic disease such as asthma—being forced to breathe air that is unhealthy” and cause “asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes, cancer and shorten lives.” This is another provision that has absolutely nothing to do with balancing the budget and everything to do with changing the law.

Blocking Department of Education regulations on for-profit colleges

This rider would prohibit the Department of Education from using federal funds to implement its proposed "gainful employment" rule, which seeks to ensure students who attend career education programs receive an education that prepares them for gainful employment. The department’s proposed regulation would require career preparation programs at community colleges and for-profit institutions to show that at least 35 percent of students repay their student loans and that graduates have debt-to-income ratios of less than 12 percent.

The regulation is a simple way to ensure students do not end up buried in debt or unable to obtain employment. It also protects the federal investment in higher education. This rider would allow career colleges to continue wasting federal financial aid dollars on high-tuition programs that leave students in insurmountable debt.

The inclusion of this provision does not reduce federal spending and would have no effect on the deficit. Rather it is a political concession to highly profitable corporations at the expense of both students and taxpayers.

Prohibits funding for a consumer products complaints database

This provision blocks the creation of a “consumer products complaints database” mandated by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. This legislation was enacted into law after a spate of recalls of China-made products, from lead-tainted toys and toothpaste to contaminated dog food and pharmaceuticals.

This rider would stymie the creation of a database that allows consumers to report and research harm associated with consumer products, preventing the Consumer Product Safety Commission from more quickly and efficiently identifying product hazards. Again, this provision is not a budget cut but a repeal of a policy that has been heavily lobbied against by manufacturing interests.

Riders that undermine women’s health services

Banning any federal funds from being used by Planned Parenthood of America for women’s health services

This includes gynecological exams, access to birth control, HIV testing, private care, or infertility counseling. Planned Parenthood operates 820 health centers around the country that provide sexual and reproductive health care, education, and information to more than 5 million women, men, and adolescents each year.

The $75 million Planned Parenthood receives annually from the federal government allows the organization to provide a crucial safety net to millions of Americans who do not have health insurance. The funds are a drop in the bucket of the $3.5 trillion federal budget. Supporters of the rider have made no secret of the fact that it has nothing to do with balancing the budget and everything to do with pushing an antiabortion and anticontraception political agenda. This is despite the reality that Planned Parenthood is already banned from using any federal money to provide abortion services.

Getting rid of the Title X domestic family planning program

This program provides family planning services, breast and cervical cancer screenings, and other preventive health care to more than 5 million Americans annually, most of whom are low-income women. The United States spends only $327 million annually on Title X programs but it is estimated that the government actually saved $3.4 billion in 2008 by providing vital family planning services to individuals who would otherwise not have access to them.

Supporters of this rider are motivated not by the bottom line but by an anticontraception agenda. Title X providers are already prohibited by law from using federal funds to provide abortion services. This rider would serve only to eliminate resources for contraception, cervical cancer screenings, annual gynecological exams, STI testing, and other preventive health services.

Making the “global gag rule” a law

The global gag rule prohibits U.S. aid to any foreign NGOs that use their own non-U.S. money to provide abortion information or services. Not only does this policy make it more difficult for poor women to access family planning services but it has also been found that the policy does not reduce abortion. Further, this measure has no effect on the budget and current law already prohibits U.S. tax dollars from being used to fund abortions overseas.

Applying the Hyde Amendment, which restricts federal Medicaid money for abortion, to the District of Columbia

This would ban the city from using its own nonfederal funds to pay for abortion care. This measure violates the reproductive rights of women, especially the poor and women of color. And because it places restrictions on nonfederal funds, it makes zero difference for the federal budget.

This isn’t about deficit reduction

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with Republicans and Democrats disagreeing over policy. But these are not budget disagreements. And they complicate an already complicated budget process. If House Republican leaders are so committed to these riders and believe they are what the American people want, they should let Congress debate them separately without the threat of a government shutdown looming over everyone.

Conservatives repeatedly claim that massive cuts to services for children, for the poor, and especially for the middle class are all about the budget deficit. They contend that deficits make these cuts necessary despite the fact that they will result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs and slower economic growth, and they are likely to endanger the safety and security of all Americans.

The truth is that these riders have nothing to do with the deficit. It would be a tragedy for Republican leadership in the House to push the government into a shutdown over them.

Michael Linden is the Director for Tax and Budget Policy, Sarah Ayres is a Research Associate, and Daniel J. Weiss is the Director of Climate Strategy at American Progress.

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