Legislative Riders Ride Hard on the Environment

Essay by John Rosapepe

Politics – October 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

I LOVE THE BITTERSWEET ENDING of summer. Warm days and cool nights. The hint of color on the tree-clad mountains. The last blackberries ripening on the vine.

That’s the sweet part. The bitter part is the final stretch of the political season. Not only is there ugliness on the campaign trail — with candidates spending millions to cast nasty aspersions on their opponents — but there is the specter of pork barrel politics in Congress, where members try to sneak through special interest legislation before they adjourn.

The favorite technique of late is the legislative “rider,” whereby a lawmaker attaches a piece of his agenda onto a large appropriations bill that must be signed into law if the government is not to grind to a halt. Some of our Western members of Congress have made this their specialty, as is evidenced by the large numbers of riders once again loading down appropriations bills this year.

Especially numerous are riders attacking the integrity of our environmental laws. The public got a foreshadowing of this trend this summer when Congress passed a huge transportation funding package which included three anti-environmental riders. One allows a six-lane highway through New Mexico’s Petroglyphs National Monument in deference to local developers, another allows a new road to be punched into Denali National Park without environmental review, while the third allows motorized truck portages in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Although the riders were precedent setting legislation for the national park and wilderness systems, there was no major battle over them, no public discourse. Legislators were happy to pass the transportation bill because it provided funds for almost everyone’s district.

The list of Fall riders on the Interior Department’s appropriations bill is no less impressive. They would renew grazing permits on public lands despite incomplete or nonexistent environmental analysis; redefine “wilderness” to emphasize human activity over solitude; prohibit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from expending funds to reintroduce grizzly bears in Idaho and Montana; allow for the construction of a permanent roadway through a national wildlife refuge for the first time; mandate that mature and old growth trees in prescribed fire burn areas be harvested instead of left for forest restoration purposes; authorize funds for a three-mile $15 million road for a ski resort/condominium developer in Utah; and permit cutting of Giant Sequoias with limited environmental review.

Sponsors of these amendments — including Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska and Reps. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, and Don Young, R-Idaho — claim they are necessary because the executive branch holds too much power. It’s true that President Clinton has indicated he would veto most of these measure if they came through the system individually. But it’s also true — and perhaps more telling — that these proposals were far from sure bets in their own body. Most faced significant opposition from colleagues in Congress and probably could never have made it to the President’s desk on their own.

IN REALITY, riders are a form of legal blackmail, where the proponents gamble that members of Congress and the president will let these special interests amendments slide in order to avoid another budgetary battle that could shut down the government or delay them in getting back home to reelection campaigns.

More than anything, western lawmakers’ continued reliance on riders reveals just how far out of touch they are with the American public on matters of environmental protection. Most people consider environmental protection a bi-partisan issue, and, as western Republicans discovered a few years ago, any open attempt to rewrite the nation’s environmental laws to make life easier for industry is not going to fly. Bills that might have sailed through during the days of the GOP’s so-called Contract with America are defeated these days. This was brought home earlier this year when a “forest health” bill written for the timber industry went down to a sound defeat.

Whether the anti-environmental politicians succeed will depend upon the Clinton administration’s resolve to protect the environment. The president vetoed the infamous appropriation riders in 1995, but signed a funding bill last year that included a slew of bad riders. What he will do this election year is anybody’s guess.

Hopefully, people will awaken to the undemocratic and secretive nature of riders and demand that Congress stop their use. Until then, the necessary and open debate on important natural resource issues will be as ephemeral as the last days of summer.

John Rosapepe lives on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. He is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado.