This January, the newly-elected Republican majority of the House of Representatives voted to approve H.R. 1, described by the League of Conservation Voters as “the most anti-environmental piece of legislation in decades.”
H.R. 1 is the “continuing resolution” budget bill that would precipitously cut $63 billion dollars of federal spending in a mere five months, primarily through deep cuts in domestic spending. The bill takes particular aim at environmental programs, slashing or outright eliminating funding from dozens of federal and state initiatives.
The budget bill’s damage extends far beyond spending cuts, however. Demonstrating that House Republicans are motivated by ideology as much as budget balancing, the bill includes 19 substantive anti-environmental amendments that are completely unrelated to deficit reduction. Such “riders” are typically attached to “must pass” legislation (such as a spending bill) as a tactic for passing controversial legislation without committee hearings, public input, or meaningful open debate.
These 19 riders would curtail or eliminate a breathtaking range of protections intended to ensure clean air and water, promote renewable clean energy, protect open spaces and wildlife, and safeguard public health.
The Environmental Protection Agency is a prime target of H.R. 1. The bill includes sweeping riders that block the agency from updating health standards for particulate matter pollution and coal ash; as well as specific riders that block it from controlling mercury emissions from the cement-production industry, considering the air pollution impacts of offshore oil drilling in Alaska, or protecting Appalachian streams from the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining. Several additional riders would block the agency’s duty to regulate, monitor, and adapt to climate change.
H.R. 1 also takes aim at our public lands, open spaces, and wildlife. It includes provisions to legislatively strip Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the Rocky Mountains, bar the Bureau of Land Management from protecting increasingly rare wildlands, prevent the Forest Service from managing damage from off-road vehicles, and block a restoration plan for the San Joaquin River intended to protect salmon and avoid water supply impacts to the farmers.
Many of the riders will also cause significant collateral damage, including a provision preventing parties who successfully sue the government from being reimbursed for their reasonable costs. Targeted at environmental organizations, the provision would instead primarily affect low-income veterans and Social Security claimants who are denied benefits and cannot otherwise afford adequate legal representation.
The protections and safeguards that would be swept away by H.R. 1 have been established over the course of decades. In contrast, the GOP allotted a mere five minutes of floor debate for each anti-environmental amendment to the bill.
Of course, in order for a budget bill to be enacted into law, it must still be approved by the Democratic majority in the Senate and be signed by President Obama. The Senate has already voted to reject H.R. 1. With the House and Senate still miles apart on a spending deal, Congress has instead been funding the government through a series of temporary stopgap bills, the latest of which will keep the government running through April 8. As patience wears thin on both sides of the aisle with these temporary measures, the day of reckoning on the budget fight is drawing near.
Realistically, the fate of H.R. 1’s anti-environmental provisions will be decided in closed-door negotiations between House and Senate leadership and the White House. This prospect should be very worrying for those who care about public health and environmental protections. After all, H.R. 1 is a bill to fund the entire government and riders by their nature are obscure to the general public. In addition, conservative House Republicans are advocating for inclusion of the riders with increasing ferocity. If opponents do not fight back with equal strength, the anti-environmental riders risk being regarded by Democrats as unimportant bargaining chips.
The people of this country deserve better. The budget fight provides an important opportunity for the Senate and the President to demonstrate leadership on several of the pressing environmental issues of our time, including climate change, clear air and water, biological diversity, and public health. Now is the time for President Obama to clearly state that anti-environmental policy riders have no place on a spending bill, and that he will veto any bill that contains such provisions.