To call the Interior and Environment spending bill the House will debate this week partisan would be an understatement.
The bill contains 38 policy riders that run the gamut from a one-year stay on new and proposed U.S. EPA rules for greenhouse gases and conventional pollutants to a moratorium on the Fish and Wildlife Service listing new species under the Endangered Species Act. Many of the provisions were included in the original Appropriations subcommittee draft, but others were added in committee almost exclusively by panel Republicans who say they are necessary to prevent EPA and Interior from doing irreparable harm to the economy.
More policy amendments are expected to be offered this week, with the House scheduled to take up the bill today.
Democrats on the panel and in the House say the measure is a massive overreach by appropriators who are using legislation intended to fund EPA and Interior in fiscal 2012 as a means of undermining landmark environmental laws.
Appropriations Committee ranking member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) said Democrats this week will focus on highlighting how many environmental protections would be rolled back in the unlikely event that the bill becomes law.
"We want to get the message out there that this bill has to be changed," he said. "We hope that will inspire our friends over in the other body, the United States Senate, and the White House."
Senate Republicans have said they do not expect their chamber to pass a bill with as many policy provisions as have been proposed in the House, and the White House has threatened to veto the bill.
Dicks said Democrats will keep the bill on the floor for a long time, offering amendments to strip its riders.
"We're going to go amendment after amendment after amendment on this," he said. "Not a filibuster ... but they're going to hear a lot about a lot of issues."
"We're going to air these issues," agreed Interior and Environment Appropriations subpanel ranking member Jim Moran (D-Va.). "We're in no rush to resolve them."
Dicks said he hopes a few Democratic amendments will draw the necessary Republican support to pass, especially one to restore FWS authority to list endangered species and another that would drop the bill's stay on Bureau of Land Management plans to withdraw acreage around the Grand Canyon from future uranium mining. The rest would serve to drive home a message, he said.
"We're going to dissent," said Moran, who plans to offer amendments that would strip the bill's one-year stays on EPA regulation under the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, and on mountaintop mining rules and the Grand Canyon withdrawal, among others.
"I don't want it to be just a messaging bill," he said. "I'm an appropriator. I used to be an appropriations staff person. I believe that these are important bills. But this bill should never see the light of day."
Moran predicted that the bill may not have enough votes even to pass the House, adding that the entire House Democratic caucus is likely to vote against it and some Republicans might, too, because they either think its provisions go too far or they oppose any funding for EPA.
He predicted that Republican leaders would not allocate enough time for the bill in a week when the House must also vote to increase the limit on the national debt ahead of an Aug. 2 deadline.
Clash over Simpson's role
The subcommittee chairman who took the lead in crafting the contentious bill is Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a lawmaker with a reputation for working across party lines and for having friends on both sides of the aisle.
While Republicans were in the minority, Simpson served as ranking member when both Dicks and Moran were chairmen of the subcommittee, and both said they had a good relationship with him. But both said the bill was not a reasonable product, even leaving aside the $2.1 billion in spending cuts Republican budget allocations required Simpson to make.
"I'm personally disappointed in this bill," Dicks said. "Because I was chairman of this committee, I care about these issues."
The bill would fund Interior at $9.9 billion, $715 million less than current levels. EPA would receive $7.1 billion, about $1.5 billion below this year's levels and $1.8 billion less than the president requested for fiscal 2012.
Dicks said he was particularly disappointed in the bill's cuts for wildlife refuges, a comparatively small budget item he championed as chairman.
"This was a major retreat," he said. "Not only in funding, but all these restrictions -- all these limitations -- put in here and agreed to, is just unprecedented."
Dicks said Simpson was largely responsible, not only for including so many environmental riders in the underlying text, but for allowing Republican colleagues to add to those provisions by amendments in committee.
When he introduced his subcommittee draft earlier this month, Simpson said he had avoided including riders in the bill that dealt with issues the Natural Resources or Energy and Commerce committees had already addressed, such as new and upcoming Clean Air Act rules for air toxics and smog- and soot-forming emissions.
"Some things were just left out because the authorizing committees said that might screw up what we're trying to do in our committee," Simpson said at the time.
But Dicks and Moran note that Simpson raised no objection when other Republicans offered amendments dealing with those same rules in committee, which were added to the bill.
"Usually the subcommittee chairman will defend his bill against all the amendments, both from his side and from the Democratic side, unless it's something that everybody agrees is noncontroversial," said Dicks, adding that other subcommittee chairmen had done so this year. "This was very unusual," he said.
Simpson's office did not return calls to comment for this story.
Clout of a chairman
Jim Dornan, a longtime lobbyist on appropriations issues, said rider-laden appropriations bills like the Interior and Environment bill are a symptom of a much broader problem -- a Congress too politically polarized to legislate.
"They can't pass these bills as freestanding [legislation] anymore," he said.
Dornan said that hardening political bases in both parties and a consolidation of power within the leadership had stripped subcommittee chairmen of some of the ownership they once had over their bills.
"These are not fiefdoms anymore," Dornan said. "Those riders are not the chairman's desire in most cases. They are leadership's desire. And the chairman, if he wants to remain chairman, in most cases has to placate leadership."
Dicks and Moran said that Simpson appeared to be under pressure from leadership to include anti-regulatory riders in his bill, because they are popular with the Republican base. But they both claim they never experienced similar pressure.
"When I was subcommittee chairman, I had nobody from the leadership call me," Dicks said. "They may have called me and said, 'We have one or two things we're interested in' -- but no one called me and said 'Do this,' which is the way the appropriations committee has always worked."
Dicks said that an inability to move bills separately may actually be strengthening subcommittee chairmanships, because they control some of the only legislation Congress produces that have a good chance of becoming law.
"If a subcommittee chairman wants to really do things to undermine the existing law ... these riders all are an indication of that power," he said.
"The authorizers can't do it, nobody else can do it, but Mike Simpson can do it," he added.
Endangered Species Act
Simpson has also demonstrated that he is able to use appropriations riders strategically.
An example is the Endangered Species Act rider, which would not permit FWS to increase the level of protection of a species in fiscal 2012.
Simpson said in his remarks at both the subcommittee and committee markup of the bill that he did not intend to undermine the wildlife protection law but that by restricting its application he hoped to force stakeholders -- especially environmentalists -- to push for a reauthorization of a bill that has not been revisited for decades. The status quo was not providing that incentive, he said.
"The authorization for the ESA expired 20 years ago and the assumption has been that the Appropriations Committee would continue to fund it year in and year out," he said at the start of the full committee markup.
"That's not how the process is supposed to work," he added.
David Conover, former Republican staff director at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Simpson was really faced with either continuing to fund a program whose authorization had expired or doing something to pressure authorizers to get their homework done.
"What makes sense about a system that just continues to fund programs with minimal oversight?" he asked.
"Mr. Simpson may be using a very blunt tool, given the species loss that we're experiencing ... but what is their better course?" Conover asked. "What's the appropriate role for appropriators? Are they supposed to be the only functioning unit of the Congress, or shouldn't authorizing committees actually do work?"
But Adam Kolton, who heads the Washington office of the National Wildlife Federation, said Simpson's rider provided little incentive for environmentalists to cooperate.
"That isn't usually the best invitation to negotiation," he said. "It's more like Pearl Harbor than it is an invitation to sit down at Reykjavik," referring to the summit that eventually led to a major nuclear disarmament treaty between the United States and Russia.
If Simpson intends to use his appropriations bill to force Congress to pass and the president to sign a bill reforming the ESA, Kolton said, it is a risky way of doing it, because Republicans will be on the record as having voted to scrap popularly supported protections for endangered species.