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Updated March 23 with President Trump signing the bill.
Congress passed a $1.3 trillion federal spending bill early Friday following negotiations in which Republicans, in order to garner needed Democratic support, agreed to remove a slew of provisions that would have gutted environmental and campaign finance laws.
The congressional negotiators also agreed not to impose the draconian spending cuts President Donald Trump wanted in a variety of clean energy and environmental enforcement programs, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. In fact, the latter saw an increase.
Because the so-called “omnibus” spending package includes partial funding for a wall on the Mexican border and a steep increase in Pentagon spending, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was able to declare it a compromise that fulfilled Trump’s agenda. With a deadline looming to avoid a government shutdown, Trump signed the bill on Friday, a few hours after he suggested on Twitter that he might decide to veto it.
Environmental, health and public interest advocates said the deal demonstrated the power of public outrage over dozens of riders the GOP sought to attach to the must-pass bill to fund the government through the remainder of this fiscal year.
“What is crystal clear is that the outrage from the public is breaking through to Congress,” said the Sierra Club’s legislative director, Melinda Pierce. “While the omnibus is far from perfect, it is unmistakable that the public’s clear message made all the difference.”
More than 80 anti-environmental-policy riders had been included in either the original House-passed version of the appropriations bill or in the Senate drafts as Congressional leaders entered into closed-door negotiations. Just as troubling to climate advocates and other public interest groups were provisions they feared would increase the flow of dark money into campaigns and elections.
But Democrats, while in the minority, had bargaining power. GOP leaders feared they would lose the votes of Republican Freedom Caucus members and deficit hawks like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who might balk at the prospect of passing a bill more than 2,200 pages long only hours after it was unveiled.
The omnibus package—which the House passed on Thursday and the Senate approved early Friday—keeps funding for the EPA at the current $8.1 billion, a rejection of the 31 percent funding cut that Trump had sought.
Funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which the White House proposed to cut by 70 percent, will actually see an increase of 12.5 percent to $2.32 billion.
Most of the anti-environmental-policy riders, like those that would have blocked implementation of the Interior Department’s methane venting and flaring rule and endangered species protections, were eliminated.
Also jettisoned was a proposal to open the door to campaign spending by churches—a change in long-standing federal election law that public interest advocates feared would be expanded to other non-profit foundations, paving the way for a new flow of tax-deductible dark money donations to candidates.
What’s Still in the Budget Bill?
But a few provisions to benefit special interests and to fend off campaign finance regulation survived in the final bill.
The legislation does contain a rider that the wood products industry has long sought to encourage the burning of biomass for electricity; advocates for renewable energy have feared such a change could disadvantage solar and wind energy. The final bill also includes a provision barring the EPA from enforcing protections against particulate matter, lead, carbon monoxide and mercury from certain incinerators.
“These riders are especially concerning because children and people with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases are among the most vulnerable to the health impacts of air pollution emitted from incinerators and biomass burning,” Harold Wimmer, president of the American Lung Association, said in a statement.
Dark Money and Other Campaign Finance Issues
The spending bill also would prevent, for the time being, further federal regulation of campaign finance rules. The final omnibus included provisions barring the Securities and Exchange Commission from requiring public companies to disclose their political spending, and stopping the Internal Revenue Service from further defining nonprofit political activity.
Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at the watchdog group Public Citizen and co-chair of the Clean Budget Coalition, a coalition of 260 groups that were lobbying against the riders, said she was disappointed that Congress aimed to block what she saw as “critically important” campaign finance disclosure rules. But she praised the package overall, including the decision to allot $307 million more than the Trump administration requested to combat midterm election cyber-meddling, and an additional $380 million for election security grants.
She said the fight over better campaign finance disclosure would be put off for another day. “Toxic riders that hurt our campaign finance system, our environmental safeguards and our financial regulations are inappropriate for an appropriations package,” she said, “and we hope to build on today’s momentum and remove the remaining campaign finance poison pills in the next package.”
Last Big Bill Before Midterm Elections?
That may take some time. Although the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, many political observers believe that the current omnibus appropriations bill will be the last major legislation that Congress considers before the midterm elections this fall.
Congressional leaders negotiating the package faced two competing pressures: include wish-list items that likely would not have another chance for a vote this year, or avoid a government shutdown in a tension-fraught election year.
They dropped the riders and went for the deal.