Policy Riders Return: Health Care, Abortion, Prison And Porn-Related Measures Threaten Funding Bills

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Efforts to fund the government for an extended period of time could dissolve over whether the government should purchase cable for federal prisons, limit the use of starchy vegetables in school lunches, or permit federal employees to download porn.

Those are just a few of the policy "riders" that lawmakers have attached to various appropriations bills that Senate and House committees are currently crafting. And along with other more poisonous pills -- language to defund Planned Parenthood or prohibit money for implementing Obama-care or financial regulatory reform -- they are complicating matters as the government figures out how to stay operational.

For weeks, lawmakers have held a cross-that-bridge-when-we-get-there mentality with respect to resolving the standoff. But with the government set to run out of funding on November 18, Democrats on the Hill and in the White House have stepped up pressure for them to be dropped. On October 19, Office of Management and Budget Chairman Jacob Lew wrote a stern letter to appropriators warning that the president would veto a bill that included objectionable riders or cut programs deemed critical. And in a subsequent interview with The Huffington Post late last week, a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, didn't back down.

"You know, we're out there saying we need to create jobs, create jobs," the official said. "They refuse to act. And still, they're poised, potentially, to say, 'You know what, let's just rerun all the battles we just have done in the last eight months.' And not only is that just a waste of time and destructive, they know the outcome. They know exactly where we stand."

"We certainly have also communicated this in other ways," the official added, when asked if outreach to House Republicans extended beyond Lew's letter.

More recently, congressional Democratic leadership has begun publicly airing those concerns. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi warned in a press conference last week that the appropriations bills "shouldn't be a place for policymaking and riders." House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, meanwhile, released a letter on Tuesday signed by 182 Democrats, pledging to oppose a bill the included "partisan policy riders."

All of which hasn't exactly fazed their Republican counterparts. “We are committed to working with our Senate colleagues to get appropriations -- which will cut spending for the second consecutive year -- done as quickly as possible," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.

And so, negotiations continue with one side issuing strict threats and the other offering nonchalance. Republican leadership has other political pressures to consider than Hoyer, Lew's or Pelosi's. Back in April, House Speaker John Boehner avoided a government shutdown by persuading much of his caucus to put off controversial riders for a later date. In August, when he convinced his caucus to get on board a debt ceiling deal to prevent the national from potentially defaulting, it was with the implicit agreement that GOP leadership would go after even more cuts in the future.

Now, the rest of the caucus wants to cash in on those promises. According to a study by the website OMB Watch, there are 63 riders currently tucked into appropriations bills just for Agriculture; Commerce, Justice and Science; and Transportation, Housing and Urban Development. One rider would prevent the Agriculture Department from using funds for congressional relations, while another would prevent the Justice Department from investigating certain firearm applications. A third would prevent the Justice Department from transferring detainees currently at Guantanamo Bay or from purchasing new buildings to house those detainees.

Then there is the fluffier stuff: language to prevent funds from going to ACORN, the now-defunct community organizing organization; a prohibition against setting a maximum limit on the serving of starchy vegetables in school meal programs; language requiring the federal government to only purchase energy efficient light bulbs; and a rule to prevent federal workers from purchasing first-class flights for work purposes. One proposed prohibition, according to OMB Watch, would make it so that no funds would "be used to maintain or establish a computer network unless such network blocks the viewing downloading, and exchanging of pornography."

Many of the riders reflect Democratic priorities. And if one party offered to drop their demands in exchange for an end to the stalemate, then a resolution on the appropriations process may not be far off.

But in addition to the riders, the Obama administration also is objecting to some of the spending cuts being pursued by congressional Republicans.

Under the debt-ceiling agreement hammered out in early August, lawmakers agreed to cut nearly $7 billion more from FY2011 funding levels. The budget cap was set at $1.043 trillion for 2012 and $1.047 trillion for 2013.

Beneath those caps, however, spending priorities have been arranged in a manner objectionable enough to provoke a veto threat.

In his letter, Lew warns against, among other things, significant funding reductions for the Internal Revenue Service, cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration's operating requirements, reductions to the Department of Energy's renewable energy programs, and cuts for "global health, food security and global climate change initiatives." Additionally, he said the implementation of financial regulatory and health care reform must be paid for and that "Congress should also fund the Environmental Protection Agency's operating budget at a level no lower than the FY 2011 enacted levels," which was $8.7 billion.

Attempts to resolve these funding differences are ongoing. The wide expectation is that Congress will have to move some of the least disputable matters first, with the House and Senate agreeing on one or several minibuses -- a compilation of several appropriations bills. To one of those, lawmakers are expected to attach a continuing resolution to keep the government funded at current levels for an additional month. This would allow for further negotiations to take place on some of the tougher disputes. But it will also mean that the spending cuts House Republicans fought so hard to secure will be put off for a later date.

"It's no way to run the government," said the senior administration official. "It sends bad signals to everybody. We also keep spending money at a higher level than what we agreed to, which is kind of ironic. But the real issue is whether we are going to engage in caucus politics as opposed to what's good for America."