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By Rachel Leven
A Trump administration rolling back environmental actions and Congress quashing Obama-era regulations, combined with a packed legislative calendar, may mean few environmental riders in the upcoming government funding bill.
“Riders seem like small potatoes compared to what’s coming down the pike,” William Yeatman, a senior fellow at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, told Bloomberg BNA. His group isn’t lobbying for any environmental riders, he said.
Another factor that may limit environmental riders is the need to garner Democratic votes to pass the measure to keep the government funded beyond April 28. Despite that, environmental groups are still preparing to battle any riders that would target environmental protections, doing so this year without a friendly White House ready to veto any poison pills.
“Our playbook, our strategy doesn’t change because we’re still fighting the same fight,” Kirin Kennedy, the Sierra Club’s associate legislative director for lands and wildlife, told Bloomberg BNA. “It just intensifies.”
The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg L.P. Bloomberg BNA is an affiliate of Bloomberg L.P.
Details on riders will be available soon because government funding runs out after April 28. House and Senate appropriations staff told Bloomberg BNA that even though no funding legislation has been introduced yet, their goal is still to get a bill out of Congress by that deadline, potentially with money for the rest of the fiscal year.
Political observers are also watching for details central to the upcoming funding bill. They want to know how the White House’s request for an $18 billion reduction in non-defense discretionary funding will affect funding levels and if Congress will fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year.
Riders, which are attached to appropriations bills, allow Congress to an extent to direct the administration’s priorities. But with Republicans in control of the entire government, that’s not needed, Jim Dyer, a 13-year veteran of the House Appropriations Committee and former senior legislative aide to two Republican presidents, told Bloomberg BNA.
“A Republican Congress doesn’t need to send a message to a Republican president,” Dyer, now a principal at the Podesta Group, said. “They just pick up the phone and call.”
They can be also used to temporarily block an agency from taking an action by barring it from using the funding for that purpose or, alternatively, can direct the administration to use funding for a specific purpose.
For example, a rider in December 2015 lifted a decades-long ban prohibiting U.S. companies from exporting crude oil. Generally, several environmental policy riders are introduced early in the process and only a few make it into legislation. Riders are generally seen as a last resort, Kevin Fay, vice chairman of lobbying firm Alcalde & Fay, told Bloomberg BNA.
Defenders of Wildlife found more than 150 “anti-environmental” policy riders were floated for fiscal year 2017 appropriations bills and other major bills last year. The riders ranged from endangered species to clean water regulation.
However, a number of changed dynamics make those riders less likely to appear in the upcoming funding bill, in part because some have already been addressed, lobbyists said.
Congress’s actions through the Congressional Review Act eliminated some of the most contentious rules. Also, President Donald Trump’s executive orders have already targeted other environmental regulations. Regulatory reform reviews underway at federal agencies, including at the Environmental Protection Agency, are also on tap to address other problems that still exist.
The packed legislative agenda, in which Congress will address the debt ceiling and major projects such as tax reform, and the fact that certain key Republicans say a government shutdown would likely be blamed on their party are additional incentives to limit riders on the funding bill, lobbyists said. Keeping these out, also would leave the upcoming bill in a better place to gather the necessary Democratic support.
“It seems likely that Democratic votes will be needed for an omnibus to pass both chambers, and we have been clear that we will not help pass a bill that contains poison pill riders, including those that would have a negative effect on public health by undermining critical environmental protections,” Matt Dennis, a spokesman for the Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, said in an email.
This doesn’t necessarily mean environmental policy riders won’t be useful during the era of the Republican-controlled Washington, and there are even some uses in this specific rider fight, lobbyists said.
Generally, the dynamics between Congress and the White House and within Congress itself are still being determined, which could ultimately affect how useful or needed a rider is as a vehicle to get something done, Fay said.
In the FY 2017 funding battle, Dyer said opportunities are available for potential environmental riders on the bill to still be used as a message from Congress to the president. For example, the president has indicated he wants to cut funding for programs such as Chesapeake Bay restoration that have broad bipartisan support, so riders could be used to protect programs like that, he said.
Kennedy of the Sierra Club said riders could still serve a unique purpose by allowing Congress to circumvent the courts or executive branch to achieve a faster solution over that appropriations timeframe, she said.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that environmentalists are still concerned about the prospect of riders in this specific funding fight. Kennedy said she’s heard more than 100 riders are still a part of the FY 2017 negotiations, though it isn’t clear whether any of those would target environmental programs.
Issues environmentalists and others said they have heard are potentially on the table range from exempting the president’s hoped for U.S.-Mexico border wall from National Environmental Policy Act requirements to authorizing a road through a national wildlife refuge in Alaska to altering endangered species protections.
These riders are “much more of a threat now” than they were in the past because the president won’t veto bills with those policy attachments, Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters, told Bloomberg BNA.
That is why the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation will continue to lobby alongside other progressive groups within the Clean Budget Coalition to block any harmful riders from the ultimate bill. And, Taurel said, if Republicans are worried about getting this off of their to-do list, keeping these riders out would help them get this and future appropriations bills done instead of relying on additional continuing resolutions.
Dyer said finishing up with this bill itself is likely a high priority. “You need to get ’17 off your plate,” Dyer said referring to the FY 2017 funding bill. “There’s a lot to do, but you can’t do it while you’re sitting around haggling over this sort of stuff.”
The National Mining Association declined to comment for this article. The American Petroleum Institute didn’t respond to Bloomberg BNA’s message requesting comment.
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