The Hill Op-ed: Now That Earmarks Are Back, It's Time to Ban 'Poison Pill' Riders

James Goodwin

April 26, 2021

Making Congress functional again is having a moment. The debates over ending the filibuster and legislation to prevent hyper-partisan congressional districts have received the most attention in this space so far. But lawmakers did quietly take an important step forward on mending congressional dysfunction when they reinstated the practice of earmarking the federal budget, reversing a decade-old ban.

Lawmakers should build on this fix to the budget process by cracking down on “poison pill” appropriations riders, a gimmick that proliferated in the vacuum left by the earmark ban.

These riders are the inverse of earmarks, which direct federal agencies to spend a certain portion of funds on a specific activity (like building a bridge or community center, for example). Poison pill riders, on the other hand, bar agencies from using funds for certain activities. They don’t repeal agencies’ underlying authority to make rules, but they have the same effect, at least for the duration of the fiscal year.

These riders are often referred to as “poison pills” because they would not survive the legislative gauntlet if introduced as standalone legislation. (Though they go by the same name, they are distinct from the traditional type of “poison pill” amendments, which are added with the goal of killing legislation that would otherwise make it through Congress.) Because they’re attached to “must-pass” appropriations bills, they enjoy a glide path to enactment. In what amounts to legislative extortion, members of Congress and the president could be forced to swallow riders they oppose to prevent a government shutdown.

Poison pill riders took off during the Obama administration, as Republican lawmakers sought to block Democratic-led agencies from developing a broad range of new public interest regulations. Caught in the crosshairs were worker health and safety protections, controls on greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution, measures to promote women’s access to family planning services and other crucial safeguards. If enacted, these riders would have made it illegal for agencies to spend a single penny on implementing the targeted regulations.

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