Conservationists Target Clean Spending Bill Despite Riders

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Brian Dabbs

Oct. 18 — An unprecedented number of fiscal year 2017 environmental riders in budget legislation aren’t deterring conservation groups from aiming to torpedo the lot.

Looming nationwide elections are currently eclipsing most congressional policy debate, but Capitol Hill will soon gird for a year-end budget fight to fund the government beyond Dec. 8.

Conservation groups are intent on reprising self-proclaimed victories in recent appropriations packages. Those groups, which include the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Parks Conservation Association and others, are confident Democrats and President Barack Obama will stand firm against riders the groups see as hostile to the environment.

Republican lawmakers compiled a list of more than 150 policy riders across the environmental spectrum on individual FY2017 appropriations bills, ranging from prohibitions on Clean Water Rule funding to regulations on manure emissions.

Democrats and the White House did cut a deal with Republicans last year agreeing to lifting the crude oil export ban in exchange for renewable energy tax credits.

Largest Policy Area Slate

The number of environmental riders dwarfs all other policy area riders put together, Scott Slesinger, Natural Resources Defense Council legislative director, told Bloomberg BNA.

“The one thing that seems to bring together the old, business-friendly Republican caucus and the Tea Party is rolling back environment regulations,” Slesinger said. “That seems to be the fallback ... one of the things that’s holding the party together.”

Republican lawmakers argue regulations are unnecessarily stifling business, putting the U.S. economy and workers at a competitive disadvantage globally.

Those lawmakers often cite free-market think tank estimates that suggest the Clean Power Plan—the Obama administration’s high-profile rule to cut down on power plant carbon pollution—would ultimately yield nearly non-existent changes to global temperature rises.

The House Interior Department and EPA appropriations bill (H.R. 5538) includes a ban on Clean Power Plan spending. That legislation passed the House in July with overwhelming Republican support.

Democrats also have rejected riders on gun control, trade with Cuba and other hot-button issues this fiscal year.

Precipitous Rider Increase

Riders aimed at scaling back environmental regulations have spiked significantly in recent years, rising more than 300 percent since FY2015, according to data compiled by the Defenders of Wildlife, another conservation group.

That reality is likely the combination of various political factors, Cameron Witten, Wilderness Society government relations associate, told Bloomberg BNA.

“Part of it is probably the general gridlock that we’ve been seeing, which has made appropriations more than before one of the only vehicles that must be passed,” Witten said. " Appropriations has always been an enticing Christmas tree but even more now with the gridlock.”

Conservation groups say they regularly reach out to Capitol Hill staffers to press their preference for budgets free from policy riders.

Republican Environmental Priority?

That large number doesn’t, however, reflect priority level, said Slesinger, indicating Republicans may ultimately be willing to jettison some measures.

Congress will reconvene following the Nov. 8 elections, at which point the two chambers of Congress will have 14 legislative days to resolve a way to keep the government running past Dec. 8—the end of the federal funding stopgap measure struck in September.

Congressional leaders will likely then have to shepherd a deal through back-room wrangling at the highest political levels, a reality that rankles a wide swath of Congress, particularly ultraconservatives, conservation lobbyists said. That would leave much of the Republican decision making to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Slesinger, along with other conservation budget lobbyists, said they’re unaware of environmental riders staunchly championed by either leader.

Sheer Numbers Concern Environmental Advocates

Still, the sheer number of riders has ginned up concerns among environmental advocates.

“We have no reason to believe that all of these riders aren’t still on the table,” Addie Haughey, government relations associate director at the Ocean Conservancy, told Bloomberg BNA. “So there is still a lot of risk. Collectively these riders would eviscerate environmental protections as we know them in this country.”

She said, however, that most riders are “parochial,” indicating they don’t have broad support among lawmakers as good public policy.

Uncertainty Pervades

The curtain has barely been raised on the budget fight, the conservation lobbyists said.

“Right now, we are hearing everything is so contingent on the outcome of the election,” Witten said. “We’re all keeping our ears to the ground and speculating, but almost all conversations are couched. The election changes the dynamic but exactly how remains to be seen.”

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is a strong favorite to succeed President Obama, recent polls show. The Senate result is up in the air, but to change the party controlling the House looks to be an uphill battle for Democrats.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Dabbs in Washington at bdabbs@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.