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Congress Puts Polluters in the Rider's Seat

If you've ever suspected that Congress thinks of corporate polluters first and the polluted public last, the debacle unfolding in Washington, D.C. this week should leave you with little doubt—and a bitter taste. Many of our elected leaders have hijacked the process by which we fund government agencies to sack the environment like Odysseus did Troy.

The Trojan Horse that is the federal appropriations bill is filled with an unprecedented number of anti-environmental "riders"—provisions added to a piece of legislation that have little to no connection with the subject of the bill itself. And just as the Greeks sought to extinguish the fires of life in Troy, these riders are meant to run down the bedrock environmental protections that were created to keep our environment clean and our imperiled wildlife safe from extinction.

One egregious effort—dubbed the Extinction Rider—would paralyze the nation's ability to protect hundreds of species and turn the decision-making about endangered wildlife into a one-way street where protections can only be weakened, never strengthened.

This is an absolutely inappropriate way to set new policy. It demeans the democratic process and indicates that such extreme measures can't stand on their own—instead, they have to be slipped as stowaways into a must-pass bill.

More than a few representatives pushing the charge have been helped into their government seats by a heap of corporate cash, and their wholesale hawking of the environment is sweet payback for the polluters who put them in their place. For example, Fred Upton (R-MI), who has sponsored a bill to dismantle the EPA's ability to cut air pollution, received almost $100,000 in contributions from mining and electric power industries in the first 6 months of 2011 alone. Their efforts seek to transform the system through which decisions about environmental policy are made from one in which the public participates to one in which corporate polluters have a monopolistic influence. We cannot stand for such disregard for democracy.

This particular batch of riders eviscerates critical funding for a spectrum of environmental programs. Specifically, the riders would:

  • paralyze protection of endangered species;
  • open the Grand Canyon to uranium mining;
  • block oversight of mountaintop removal mining;
  • sacrifice clean water protections to a slew of special interest loopholes;
  • prevent protection of people and drinking water from toxic coal ash;
  • block clean air protections against pollution that harms our health and worsens climate change; and much more

With these riders, Congress is showing just how out of touch it is with the wishes of the American public. Consider, for example, that a bipartisan 66 percent majority of likely voters in 2012 stated that EPA scientists—not Congress—should set air pollution standards. That might matter to someone serving at the will of the people. Not as much to representatives such as Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), who are laying siege to public health protections against air pollution as if they were delegates of the United Smokestacks of America.

Lummis's rider would deny funding to clean up coal-fired power plants—the worst of all toxic air polluters. These facilities fill our air with hazardous pollutants like mercury, which harms the brains of young children and the unborn, and soot—a major cause of premature death. In total, the health protections that Lummis is attacking would prevent the premature deaths of up to 51,000 people annually and save the American public up to $420 billion in health costs every year. The economic benefits exceed the costs substantially—the American public will save between $14 and $32 for every dollar spent on cleaning coal-fired power plants up.

With a Congress intent on snatching those benefits away, it's no wonder the public trusts scientists over their elected representatives. That trust in science is exactly why these representatives are cloaking their efforts to discount scientific recommendations in calls for fiscal responsibility. But the notion that we can't have both a strong economy and strong environmental protections is just plain false. A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute, for example, found that EPA's proposed health protections to reduce power plants' mercury pollution presents no threat to job growth and would, in fact, have a positive impact on jobs in coming years.

Just as the Trojans unquestionably accepted a "gift" from a group of individuals who clearly had an ulterior motive, certain members of Congress are banking on the hope that Americans will accept their "gift" of supposed fiscal responsibility without seeing how it will allow corporate polluters to sneak in and destroy our environmental protections. By hijacking the political process, these representatives are undermining the very idea of democracy. Let's not invite them in.