GOP Pushes 80 Anti-Environment Riders, Dark Money Rule Changes in Spending Bill

Republicans have slipped in riders that attempt to block new ozone standards, open the spigots for dark money in elections and weaken methane rules for oil and gas.

Republican Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, John Thune of South Dakota, and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Congress must pass a new spending bill by March 23 to avoid a government shutdown. Slipped into the Republican spending plan are riders targeting climate and environment policies. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Congressional Republicans are planning a two-fisted assault on climate and other environmental policies as they push a must-pass spending package for the current fiscal year, which is already half over.

In a perennial ritual on Capitol Hill, they have laden the legislation with anti-environment riders. At the same time, they are pushing provisions this year that could turn on the spigots for a new flow of dark money into elections, according to a coalition of public interest groups and Democratic lawmakers.

The campaign finance measures are just as troubling to advocates of climate change policies as are the special-interest riders. Both tools are favored by the fossil fuel industry and its allies. Opponents of action on global warming, like the billionaire petrochemical magnate Koch brothers, have funneled money and influence into the political process through an ever-changing network of advocacy groups, such as Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity.

The package of riders, if approved, "would be the most fundamental change in the money and politics landscape since the horrible 2010 Citizens United decision," said Robert Weissman, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen. The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United spawned the creation of super PACs—political action committees that can receive unlimited campaign contributions from corporations, unions and individuals, as long as those donations are disclosed and the super PAC's political activities are not coordinated with those of candidates.

2 Ways Bills Would Influence Money in Politics 

The Senate version of the massive "omnibus" appropriations legislation that Congress must pass by March 23 to avoid a government shutdown includes a measure that would relax the limits on how much money national parties may spend in coordination with presidential campaigns. This would make it easier for mega-donors to get around the current limits on direct donations to candidates.

The House version of the bill includes language to open the door to campaign spending by churches. President Donald Trump called for Congress to take such action last year when he signed a "religious liberty" executive order.

During a failed attempt to attach the provision to the GOP tax overhaul bill last year, lawmakers expanded it to allow political activity not only by churches but all public charities, including private family foundations like those favored by the Koch brothers and other wealthy donors, and public interest advocates fear that could happen again. The Joint Committee on Taxation at the time estimated such a measure could result in $1 billion being diverted into churches and charities for political giving—since such contributions would be tax-deductible, unlike giving to political organizations.

More Than 80 Anti-Environment Riders 

Last year, Democrats were successful in stripping 160 riders out of an earlier stopgap spending bill before its passage.

More than 80 anti-environmental-policy riders are included in either the House-passed version of the new appropriations bill or in the Senate drafts this year, said Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice. They include 12 riders to block enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, including protection of the Sage Grouse, whose numbers are dwindling across 11 western states, where habitat protection interferes with mining and oil and gas activities.

One rider would prohibit implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency's stringent ozone standard—a rule that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has repeatedly sought to delay.

Congressional Republicans are also seeking to include provisions that would make it more difficult in the future to tighten air quality standards for ozone, more commonly known as smog. Ozone, a product of fossil fuel pollution, is one of the most thoroughly studied pollutants; the Obama administration's assessment of the science cited 2,300 studies that establish the threat it poses to health.

"What the Congressional Republicans are trying to do is give the cover of law to Pruitt's attempt to undermine the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and other laws we already have in place," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

Another rider would block implementation of the Interior Department's rule prohibiting gas flaring and methane venting on federal land—an Obama-era regulation that only last week was upheld by a federal judge. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has begun the formal process of rewriting the rule, after courts have blocked at least four efforts at a short-cut repeal. Van Noppen called the rider "a Congressional end-run."

The riders also cover a wide array of hot-button issues that likely will command more political attention than either campaign finance or climate. They include funding for Trump's Mexico border wall, blocking CDC funding for studying gun violence, and an amendment to limit the scope and duration of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

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