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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

GOP uses spending bills to pick partisan policy fights

The Capitol in Washington, June 22, 2023. Republicans are tucking dozens of policy mandates into government funding bills, in an effort to use their majority to force politically charged votes over cultural war issues.

By Catie Edmondson

U.S. military installations would be explicitly banned from having drag queen story hours for children.

Women would have less access to mail-ordered abortion medication.

The congressional office in charge of diversity and inclusion would be shuttered, and federal agencies would be barred from promoting critical race theory.

House Republicans have begun loading up government spending bills with partisan policy mandates aimed at amplifying political battles on social issues, setting up clashes with the Democratic-controlled Senate to go along with the funding disputes already looming that could result in a government shutdown this fall.

The two chambers already were on a collision course on dollars and cents, with Republicans, bowing to their hard-right members, insisting on lower funding levels than the two parties agreed to in a bipartisan deal to suspend the debt limit. Now, in another nod to the demands of the far right, Republicans on the Appropriations Committee are using the spending bills to pick fights on a litany of policy issues that appeal to their base.

A particularly bitter battle is brewing over funds for the Justice Department, which has become a major target of Republicans who claim it is politically biased against the right, including former President Donald Trump. Right-wing lawmakers have pledged to cut the department’s budget and proposed a slew of restrictions on the agency, including defunding the special counsel overseeing investigations of Trump and withholding funding for a new FBI headquarters.

“I will not vote for ANY appropriations bill to fund the weaponization of government,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., pledged on Twitter as she announced her proposal to defund the office of the special counsel in the Trump investigations. It is not yet clear whether that measure will be added to the legislation.

Such provisions could render many of the GOP-written spending bills dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate, paving the way for a government shutdown if the disputes cannot be resolved by Sept. 30 or automatic spending cuts in early 2025 if Congress fails to clear all dozen of the individual spending bills.

Adding so-called “riders” — provisions that sometimes have little to do with the underlying legislation — to appropriations bills was once a common practice for lawmakers seeking to influence policy on an array of hot-button issues, such as abortion and the environment.

But as the appropriations process on Capitol Hill has broken down in recent years, huge packages lumping all or most federal funding together in one take-it-or-leave-it bill negotiated by congressional leaders in both parties have replaced individual spending measures, limiting the opportunities for rank-and-file lawmakers to tack on such items.

Now, with members of both parties pledging to work through the 12 individual bills, policy riders are rearing their heads anew and threatening to further complicate what is already set to be a fraught process. The bipartisan deal brokered last month by Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and President Joe Biden to suspend the debt ceiling stipulated that lawmakers must ensure all dozen spending bills that fund the government are passed and signed into law by the end of the calendar year. If even one bill were derailed, an across-the-board spending cut of 1% would go into effect in 2025.

The process also risks teeing up another mutiny among far-right lawmakers, who could refuse to support final compromise bills that do not include their pet policy riders. In that scenario, it would fall to a coalition of lawmakers similar to the one that approved the debt-limit deal to push the spending bills through the House.

Hard-right Republicans revolted this month after the debt-ceiling deal did not include several measures they had agitated for that were included in the original House GOP proposal, even though they never had any chance of being adopted by Democrats who control the Senate and White House.

Appropriators have already approved policy riders that are similarly dead on arrival as they draft and pass their spending bills out of committee, arguing that they are using constitutionally enshrined tools to push back against what they called the Biden administration’s politically divisive agenda.

“I know that many of you here today will be very critical of these new riders. I wish they weren’t necessary,” said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., the top Republican on the defense subcommittee. “It is the department’s own leadership, not us, who are creating these issues.”

Lawmakers on the subcommittee that funds the Food and Drug Administration included a provision that would effectively prohibit access to abortion medication by mail, a practice that is still legal in most states. Another would eliminate funding for climate change research at the Agriculture Department.

Tucked in the military spending bill approved by the committee along party lines Thursday was a measure that would bar security clearances for 51 former intelligence officials who signed on to a public letter during the 2020 presidential campaign warning that the leak of salacious material found on the abandoned laptop of Biden’s son, Hunter, could be part of a Russian campaign aimed at influencing the election.

Another provision would ban programs on military installations that would “bring discredit upon the military,” including “drag queen story hour for children” and the “use of drag queens as military recruiters.”

The measure was prompted by GOP outrage around a planned drag queen storytelling event at Ramstein Air Base in Germany and an online Navy recruitment pilot program that included promotion by an active duty officer and social media influencer who performs as a drag queen.

“A woke military is a weak military,” said Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., a member of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus, adding later that “traditionally patriotic recruits are avoiding enlisting.”

Democrats were already furious that House Republican appropriators have moved to fund federal agencies below the spending levels that Biden and McCarthy had agreed to in the debt-limit compromise. Republican appropriators agreed to embrace the lower levels to meet the demands of the Freedom Caucus after they shut down the House to register their ire at the debt-ceiling deal.

“The allocations before us reflect the change members on my side of the aisle want to see by returning spending to responsible levels,” said Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, chair of the Appropriations Committee.

The policy riders have prompted new ire among Democrats.

“In my 16 years as an appropriator, I have never seen such shocking and extreme policy riders included in an appropriations bill, let alone the defense bill,” said Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., the top Democrat on the military appropriations subcommittee. “It is very clear that all these divisive riders must come out, or this bill will not gain the bipartisan support necessary to become law.”

But members of the Freedom Caucus are pressing for the opportunity to add even more policy changes when the spending measures reach the House floor. Congressional leaders have toiled in recent years to shield appropriations measures from such amendments, both to protect their most vulnerable members from politically difficult votes and to ensure swift passage of the legislation, often passed just hours before the government is set to shut down.

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, who sits on the Rules Committee, the panel that decides which bills can be considered on the House floor and what changes may be proposed, said those days were over. Lawmakers would “definitely be able to have amendments on the floor,” he said.

“I certainly applaud all the amendments necessary to cut” federal spending, Roy added.

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