The Global Citizen: End of Congressional Session, Riders Run Amok

"Rider mania!" warns the daily email brief I get from the Grassroots Environmental Effectiveness Network (GREEN).It happens at this time every year. We are approaching the end of a Congressional session. Complicated money bills full of large numbers zoom around Washington, bills that MUST be passed by Congress and signed by the President if the government is to function. Dirty games abound, including the game of riders.A rider is a last-minute amendment to one of those necessary bills, usually slipped into the 154th paragraph or so where no one will notice. The rider will have nothing to do with the bill. It will be something Congress would never pass and/or the President would never sign if it came through the regular legislative process. It will do a major favor at public expense to some campaign contributor somewhere, but the damage will be finely calibrated to look insignificant relative to the billion-dollar bill it's riding on. No one will feel like stalling the nation's business just to dust off a few pesky riders.In short, it's a sneaky, underhanded way of governing. Nearly everyone of both parties does it. But it is used especially relentlessly by a few Republicans who enjoy turning public environmental treasures into private wealth.The anti-environmental rider that will go down in infamy was the timber salvage rider, called by green groups "logging without laws." It was attached to a bill providing emergency funds for flood victims in the Midwest. It waived all environmental laws with regard to timber contracts in the national forests, blocked citizen protest, and unleashed an orgy of clearcutting. Our forests will carry its mark for decades to come.Another egregious rider quietly put an 18-month moratorium on listing any more endangered species. Never mind whether they're actually endangered, we won't CALL them endangered, and then we won't have to do anything about them.It was the accretion of anti-environmental riders that finally caused Bill Clinton to veto the 1996 budget bill and shut down the government until Congress agreed to remove the worst riders. You'd think that dramatic showdown would have discouraged more foul play. But it is SO tempting, if you've got a kleptomaniac mind, to try to pull off just one more heist.So this year we have, on an emergency spending bill already passed and signed into law, a little rider from New Mexico's Senator Pete Domenici turning a piece of the public's Petroglyph National Monument into a multi-lane highway to serve newly built Albuquerque suburbs.n that same law Senator Larry Craig of Idaho managed to undo a moratorium the administration had put on new logging roads into national forests.ISTEA, the big transportation bill, is studded with riders. One of them allows trucks and jeeps into Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness to haul boats over portages. (Having personally hauled my gear over several of those portages, I can say a nice rental truck might have been welcome, but it would have been the end of silence, clean air, personal pride, and "wilderness experience.") Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska managed to get into ISTEA a rider he's been sticking onto everything for years, which will punch a road through Denali National Park. Another ISTEA rider puts off for 10 years the Clean Air Act requirement to clear up smoggy vistas in national parks, especially the Grand Canyon.ISTEA is done, passed, signed by Clinton, law, but there is a "corrections" process going on that could, maybe, strip away some of its nastier riders. If so, they will reappear, along with others, attached to the thirteen appropriations bills that come up for action this summer.- Senator Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho has attached to the Defense Authorization bill a rider turning Idaho's Owyhee Canyon wilderness into a bombing range.- Senator Don Young of Alaska is looking for a hook upon which to hang a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.- Frank Murkowski is eager to give 250,000 acres of our federal lands to the University of Alaska for purposes of development and endowment. (The university already owns more than 100 million acres.)- Murkowski also wants to allow helicopters to operate in all wildlife refuges, national parks, and wilderness areas.- Larry Craig and Representative Bob Smith of Oregon have a grazing rider that locks in subsidized grazing on public land and keeps public opinion out of grazing policy decisions.Et cetera.The other day I asked a Congressional staffer whether there was any way the public could demand up-front government instead of back-door riders. He wasn't warm to the idea. If you want to get something done, he said, riders are real handy. They aren't all environmentally destructive, they can serve good causes. Everyone uses them to grab bits of tax money for pet projects back home. Makes you popular with the voters.Is that true, voters? If not, call the Capitol (202-224-3121) and tell your elected representatives, "Hey, knock off the funny business! No more riders!"(You can follow the riders at or send an email message to asking to subscribe to GREEN.)Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.


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