The long-term impacts of “one-year” riders

Most Americans can recall from social studies class and Schoolhouse Rock that a bill becomes a law through a process of introduction, committee work, and votes in both chambers of Congress before being signed by the President. Yet in reality, Congress influences policy decisions and administrative actions in ways that are more complex and potentially less transparent.

The Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse over government. Congress passes annual appropriations bills that fund the various programs of the federal government, and the necessity for Congress to pass these bills every year makes them an attractive target to attach riders – legislative provisions not directly related to the bill at hand. Appropriations riders are added to a bill by a small number of Congressmen to avoid an open debate on the merits of a particular policy, relying instead on the political and practical necessity to pass the larger funding bill.

Several rider efforts have succeeded in prohibiting funding or delaying environmental programs, much as some are talking about doing to prevent EPA from implementing greenhouse gas regulation under the Clean Air Act. Unlike policy decisions set in authorizing legislation, funding restrictions only apply for the year of appropriations covered and must be renewed on an annual basis. Unfortunately, once the precedent is set, it is common for riders to reappear for multiple years, usually without an up-or-down vote on that specific policy decision.

When it comes to climate change, Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-MI) took a bill that failed to gain any traction in the committee process and turned it into a barrier to productive climate work through the appropriations process. Reacting to the Kyoto Protocol, drafted in December 1997, Rep. Knollenberg introduced HR 3807, in May 1998, which would have prohibited the use of funds for “for rules, regulations, or programs designed to implement, or in contemplation of implementing, the Kyoto Protocol.” A broad reading of the phrase “in contemplation of” would have stopped federal funds from being used for any work on climate change, even educational workshops. When the bill failed even to move out of the Republican controlled committee to which it was referred, Rep. Knollenberg turned to the appropriations process, where he attached the bill as a rider to the appropriations bill that included FY1999 funding for EPA. The same language was included in several appropriations bills. In addition to the EPA bill, it was also included the next year for FY2000 funding. As a result, Rep. Knollenberg was able to inhibit the Clinton Administration’s climate change work without going through the regular process of enacting legislation.

Other environmental priorities have been the targets of appropriations riders and defunding efforts. These riders became popular shortly after the political upheaval of 1994, but the effects were often much longer lasting. Beginning in Fiscal Year 1996, a rider was attached annually to the transportation appropriations bill preventing increases in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard known as the “CAFE freeze rider.” Like the proposed riders on greenhouse gas regulation, this rider was in reaction to an action by the Clinton Administration, in this case an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The recurrence of this rider continued until Fiscal Year 2001 when the rider was dropped in favor of a study on raising CAFE standards, ultimately yielding to bipartisan support for new standards much later than initially anticipated. 

Environmental advocates have also used riders to avoid open policy discussion and votes. One of the longest running annual appropriations riders was a prohibition on offshore oil and gas leasing off the East and West coasts and certain parts of Alaska. That rider was included in appropriations bills for 27 years, from 1981 to 2008, without ever being a stand-alone piece of legislation passed by Congress.

The lesson of these and the plethora of other riders included on appropriations bill every year is clear: these provisions have staying power. The inclusion of a one-year delay on greenhouse gas reductions could easily continue for two years – or even twenty. According to the scientific information available, we don’t have the luxury of waiting that long to reduce our emissions. Instead, the United States should proceed with the prudent and reasonable series of regulations that have been outlined and are being implemented under existing law following the 2007 Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA. 

Michael Tubman is the Congressional Affairs Fellow