The Global Citizen: The Battle Of The Riders

At stake in Washington as the President and Congress go to the mat is more than the deficit, more than Medicare, more than shut-downs of "non-essential" parts of the government. Large chunks of the nation's natural wealth are also hanging in the balance. So, perhaps, is the disgusting practice of legislative riders. Riders, like fleas on a dog, like leeches sucking the blood of unwary hikers, like lampreys locking onto the sides of Great Lakes fish -- the analogies that come to mind are all ugly -- riders are little attachments to big bills. Either they hope to escape notice or they call attention to themselves with blatant mockery. "Ha, ha, we know you hate us, but if you let that big fellow in the door, we come in too!" The more rabid Republicans in the current Congress are fond of riders that simultaneously hand favors to big campaign contributors while irritating the Democratic president. Many of their riders are anti-environmental For example, the three appropriations bills that President Clinton vetoed this week included riders that: -- delay for a year listing 239 species proposed for threatened or endangered status under the Endangered Species Act, including jaguar, bighorn sheep, and Atlantic salmon. -- cut the Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement budget by 25%, cut its overall budget by nearly that much, and cripple its ability to protect wetlands. -- dramatically increase taxpayer-subsidized clearcutting in Alaska's Tongass National Forest. -- reject the scientific protocol for identifying marbled murrelet nesting sites in the Pacific Northwest, thereby opening 4.5 million acres of ancient forest to clearcutting. -- unfund the Mojave National Preserve, the heart of last year's California Desert Protection Act. -- eliminate measures to protect critical salmon and trout habitat in the interior Columbia Basin. -- put a moratorium on grazing regulations on public land. -- postpone energy efficiency standards and cut energy conservation funding. -- eliminate interim protections required by a 1993 court settlement for old-growth stands in Idaho's Clearwater National Forest and override the court's order to manage the Clearwater for multiple use, rather than for timber harvest alone. The nastiest rider of the bunch, because it is so in-your-face irrelevant to the large business of funding the government, is a small exemption allowing the University of Arizona to build a telescope on public land at the top of Mt. Graham. There's a long story behind this particular favor. The mountain is a sky-island, rising out of the Arizona desert. It shelters a unique forest habitat on its cool peak, including several endangered species. The peak is also sacred to local Apache tribes. Under existing environmental and cultural laws there is no way anything would be built on top of this mountain. But a rider several years ago gave the university an exemption from the Endangered Species Act for a six-acre patch, where it has built two telescopes for its international partners (the Max Planck Institute of Germany and the Vatican). Now the university wants more acreage to build a third telescope for itself. The Arizona astronomers have still more telescopes in mind, and with the aid of pliant local Congressmen, they are in a groove -- whenever they want to violate the Endangered Species Act, they can just slip a little rider onto an appropriations bill. Biologists can't even retaliate by expanding their labs into the universe, causing star after star to go out. I draw two lessons from this unseemly string of special-interest riders. The first is that the environment is not safe in the hands of the new breed of Republican. Conservation used to be a conservative issue. Some of the remaining "moderate Republicans" remember that. But the "new Republicans" are willing to hand public natural resources over to just about anyone. The second lesson is that Congressional rules should forbid irrelevant riders. (I say that knowing full well that in past Congresses riders have also been used to sneak through pro-environmental measures.) Appropriations bills should appropriate money, period. Laws should be made or unmade in separate bills, duly considered, under the spotlights, open to citizen comment, for the president to veto or not without being blackmailed by the threat of government shut-down. And laws should be applicable to all, not munched away in special exceptions for people or institutions that have clout in Congress. Hot negotiations will soon settle these particular riders one way or another. Judging from his record, there's little reason to hope that Clinton will be strong enough to keep vetoing until they are all gone. (It doesn't hurt to encourage him though -- 202-456-1111.) Ideally he would be even stronger and keep vetoing until the rules are changed to stop all egregious riders. (You could also suggest that to Newt or your own Congressional delegation -- 202-224-3121.)

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