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Credit: M. Wuerker in POLITICO

This is the first chance for the 115th Congress, since President Trump’s election, to perform one if its key functions: funding the Government. Americans want their National Parks open, and rely on Congress to pay to maintain them. Congress used to routinely pass appropriations bills, but not anymore.

In 2012, a powerful caucus within the Congressional majority viewed almost all functions of Government with such cynicism they created a budgetary mechanism few believed would ever come in to effect. They called it the Sequester.

A Recent History of Budget Appropriations

The Sequester was a Damoclean sword dangling over most of the Federal Government budgets (including Defense Department). The purpose was to incent Congress to resolve an imposing debt ceiling crisis. Without a solution, the Sequester sword would drop, slicing indiscriminately through budgets funding protections for clean water, air, public health, and everything else. The whole idea was this mechanism was so Draconian, not even Congress would be dumb enough to allow the Sequester. And yet, in March 2013, the sword fell. In October of that year, Congress even temporarily shut down the Government.

Doomed to Repeat?

Once again, the time has come to keep the Government open. Congress controls the purse strings and ever since the 2013 Government shutdown debacle, Congress has opted to punt on passing a budget. Last week, they passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) temporarily keeping the Government open at current levels though the first week of December.

One of the major hurdles Congress deals with during appropriations season is the policy rider. Written as a budget amendment, policy riders typically forbid the Government from spending any money to perform a function the law otherwise requires. Often, the purpose is to slow or stop regulations.

Boundary Waters

Take for instance, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness– the Nation’s most visited Wilderness Area located by the Minnesota/Canada border. The Interior and Agriculture Departments have begun conducting the necessary environmental reviews to withdrawal the minerals near the Wilderness from mining. That way, the Land of 1000 Lakes may preserve the pristine waters of this region for generations to come. Yet, Representatives Emmer (R-MN) and Nolan (D-MN), passed a policy rider cutting off funding this review- effectively seeking to stop the withdrawal.

Conflict minerals

Representative Huizenga (R-MI) plans to offer a rider preventing the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from spending funds to enforce the Conflict Minerals provision (Section 1502) of the Dodd Frank Act (also known as the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act). Designed to break the links between the lucrative minerals trade and armed conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the law creates an important supply chain due diligence standard requiring publicly traded companies to report their responsible sourcing efforts to the SEC.

BLM methane rule

Mr. Pearce’s (R-NM) rider blocks a commonsense safeguard that ensures the oil and gas industry does not torch taxpayer money in their flares. The fossil fuel industry should pay what they owe for the public’s minerals. The BLM methane rule is a classic win-win-win. The regulated community (oil and gas industry) benefits by capturing more of the product they wish to sell. The Government benefits from greater royalty revenues and fewer enforcement burdens. The public benefits from cleaner air.

EPA Methane rule

Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) offered a similar rider to block the EPA methane rule.  Relatively simple, cost-effective technologies, allow the oil and gas industry to capture the methane and volatile organic compunds emitted from their new facilities. Years in the making, this rule protects the climate, air quality, and public health. Like the BLM methane rule, everyone benefits. And yet for some policymakers, virtually any Government regulation is anathema.

Approaching the Fiscal Cliff

Too soon to say whether these policy riders become law, or if Congress again ultimately agrees to another CR. Ultimately, policy does not belong in appropriations bills. If Congress wants to stop a mineral withdrawal or prevent a rule’s implementation, they should just change the law. But they don’t have the votes. Congress voted down their chance to repeal the BLM methane rule in May. Their effort for complete Dodd-Frank repeal has stalled. Congress, long ago, granted the Boundary Waters Wilderness protection, and no law can change the region’s hydrology. The responsible thing to do is keep the Government open and allow it to its job.