Congress Is Playing the Ugly Rider Game Again
“ACTION ALERT. This week the Senate is expected to vote on an Interior Appropriations bill that has a dirty baker’s dozen of anti-environmental riders. Now is the time to step up our opposition to these undemocratic attacks on the environment.”
I get so darn sick of these emails.
I get sick of the whole cynical rider game.
They play it, down there in the Great White Governing City, whenever they appropriate money for something. Last time it was the emergency bill to pay for NATO bombing. This time — every year at this time — it’s the parade of bills to fund the government for the coming fiscal year. As long as those bills are in motion, from their first hearing through passage in the House and the Senate, conference committee negotiations, right up to late September when they’re sent for the president’s signature, they’ll accumulate and shed and hide and lose and regain a scurvy assortment of riders.
A rider is a small parasite hooked onto a big bill. It would never pass on its own, but maybe, if no one notices, if the president wants the money badly enough, if there’s a back-room deal, maybe it can ride through on a must-pass funding measure.
Here, with the names of their instigators, are a few of the riders currently attached to the Senate’s version of the bill that would fund our Interior Department.
Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) — Requires that the Bureau of Land Management automatically renew grazing permits. This rider would postpone indefinitely the application of environmental laws on millions of acres of public rangeland.
Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho) — Waives the law that limits toxic mining waste dumps to five acres of public land. Mines could dump on as much federal land as they want.
Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) — Orders the National Park Service to allow grazing in Washington’s Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area. Here’s a classic special-interest rider; it benefits 10 ranchers at the expense of thousands of hikers, campers, and boaters.
Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) — Prohibits the Secretary of the Interior from banning lead mines in the Missouri Ozarks. Missouri’s Attorney General, Missouri conservation groups, and the National Park Service have all requested that the Secretary prohibit a prospective lead mine on public land there.
Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) — Blocks funding for energy-efficiency measures intended to reduce energy use in federal buildings (and save the government nearly $1 billion per year in energy costs).
Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) — Delays for the fourth time the requirement that oil companies pay full royalties for drilling on public land. This rider saves oil companies up to $100 million a year that is supposed to go to the Land and Water Conservation Fund and to the states for education.
There are dozens more. Reading the list will make any citizen hopping mad. We all know things are corrupt down there in the Great White City, but it’s still sickening to look at the details of the corruption.
But this is only a game. Many of these riders won’t survive. They’ll get knocked off through negotiations, threats, publicity, back-room deals Passing every rider is not the point.
The point, one of them anyway, is to let politicians assure campaign contributors that they tried to sneak through their special way of exploiting public assets for private gain. Failing is actually better for the politician than succeeding; if the ranchers ever got their outrageous grazing bills through, they wouldn’t have to go on ponying up to keep Domenici in office.
Another point is to keep environmental groups occupied. As the daily squawks of outrage in my email attest, the enviros flail around for months, fighting off hydra-headed riders. Cut one down in committee and two more appear during floor debate. Slay them in the Senate; they reappear in the House. Ridicule them in the press; they creep in at midnight in the final conference committee, get buried on page 273, and aren’t discovered until three days after the president has signed the bill. Even if not a single rider got through, it would be worthwhile to play this game to absorb the energy and resources of the enviros.
But they do get through. A few on every funding bill. You never know which ones it will be or how it will be decided. Some kind of quiet deal is struck between the president and the Congress. I won’t sign if you keep that one in, but I’ll let this one slip by. (The president has his campaign funders too.)
So along with the bill to send relief to flood victims in the Mississippi valley, we got a rider that waived environmental rules for logging in national forests. The bill to fund national parks contained a small handoff of Utah mountainside to a ski developer. The 104th Congress managed to get 30 such riders through. The 105th, the current Congress, has 17 to its discredit so far, including a road into Denali National Park, a ban on auto efficiency standards, the preservation of subsidies for logging roads on national land, and the admission of motorized vehicles to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters wilderness.
I get so tired of this ugly game. It’s hard to summon energy to respond to every ACTION ALERT and fire off more outraged letters to Washington, letters that can never compete with the campaign contributions of those who enrich themselves by exploiting publicly owned natural wealth.
When you’re caught in a rigged game, the smart thing to do is stop playing. Those of us who care about the environment should stop getting sucked into endless rider fights and start fighting for just one thing: keeping private-interest money completely, utterly, fully, totally, forever out of the political process.