Appropriations Riders and Environmental Reform: How Appropriate?

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The reform and restriction of federaql regulatory programs is a key element of the conservative Congressional agenda.  Many victorious candidates for the House of Representatives campaigned against government bureaucrats and the seemingly serpentine maze of federal regulatory edicts.  Regulatory reform was also a significant component of the House Republicans’ “Contract With America.”  Any serious regulatory reform effort must address current environmental laws.  There are extensive federal statutes covering air, water, waste, species diversity, and land use that all have significant, though largely unmonitored, economic impacts.

Reforming the dozen or so major federal environmental statutes is a task far beyond the scope of any one Congressional session.  Even were the 104th Congress to devote the lion’s share of its efforts to environmental programs, it is unlikely that more than a few major environmental laws would be reformed in any one year.

To address the perceived excesses of federal environmental regulation prior to the enactment of new or amended environmental statutes, the House of Representatives attached appropriations limitations or “riders” to spending bills that prevent the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal entities from using taxpayer dollars in specified ways.  In this sense, the riders are designed to limit the federal government’s most extreme regulatory excesses until such time when Congress can reform the underlying statutes.

The use of appropriations riders by the 104th Congress has been extremely controversial, particularly in the area of environmental protection.  Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner alleges that the appropriations riders placed on the EPA by the House are part of “an organized, concerted effort to undermine health protections.”  Citizens for Sensible Safeguards (CSS), a pro-regulatory coalition of labor, environmental, and consumerist groups, issued a report, Back Door Extremism: Misusing the Appropriations Process to Gut public Protections, that decried the appropriations limitations “designed to amend, and even eliminate, important public protections.”  CSS charged that “This unprecedented attack is a grotesque misuse of the budget proces.”  Yet the use of appropriations riders is not new.  Democratically-controlled Congresses have enacted such provisions into law for years, sometimes for environmental purposes.

A larger issue is whether appropriations limitations are ever appropriate in the U.S. constitutional system.  The Founding Fathers noted that a constitutional process can best be relied upon to “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity . . .”  This constitutional process requires an appropriate balance between executive and legislative prerogatives.  This discussion paper will focus upon the exercise of one legislative prerogative – the appropriations power – as a mechanism to ensure that balance and perspective is maintained in the execution of environmental laws in the United States

This paper provides a brief overview of the origin, extent, and limitations of the appropriations authority and the recent use of this appropriations authority by the House of Representatives to proscribe certain actions by the Environmental Protection Agency.