Learn more about poison pill policy riders and our coalition’s work immediately below. View the glossary of budget terminology.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to some of the most common questions about the Clean Budget Coalition and our work.
What are policy riders and why do they matter?
Policy riders are measures attached to legislation that have nothing to do with the purpose of the legislation. So for example, a measure that blocks the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission from requiring companies to disclose their political spending doesn’t belong in a bill that’s supposed to be about funding our government. That measure is a rider — and a particularly harmful one, at that.
Most riders are just handouts to big corporations and special favors for ideological extremists that could not become law on their own merits. Many of them are also deeply unpopular and highly controversial. So unscrupulous lawmakers attach these measures to must-pass budget and appropriations legislation as riders, bypassing the normal legislative process. It’s sneaky, underhanded and undemocratic.
We believe that harmful riders have no place in legislation that funds our government — and that Congress and the White House should not have to swallow appropriations legislation containing these poison pills.
What is the Clean Budget Coalition?
Founded in 2015, the Clean Budget Coalition is made up of more than 170 groups that have joined together to oppose riders. With local, state and national organizations in our ranks, our members represent an incredibly broad and diverse cross-section of the public interest community.
Our members focus on banking reform, civil justice, civil rights, consumers, disability, the economy, education, the environment, faith, families, food safety, foreign policy, government reform, guns, housing, immigration, inequality, law, LGBT issues, low-income communities, the media, the military, money in politics, people of color, prescription drugs, prison reform, public health, regulation, science, small business, social insurance, social services, technology, trade, veterans, voting rights, whistleblowers, women, workers and more at all levels of government.
While each group in the coalition focuses on stopping riders that affect their members and constituents, every group in the coalition stands united behind our call for a clean budget with no harmful riders. Our strength is our solidarity.
What does the Clean Budget Coalition do to fight riders?
We educate lawmakers, the press and the public about the threat of riders, and we use a variety of tactics — such as lawmaker meetings, Twitter storms, briefings and press conferences, blog and op-ed pushes, grassroots pressure, Hill drops and more — to encourage members of Congress to stand strong against them. We also built this website to educate you about the danger of riders and to give you some tools to fight back.
What is the Clean Budget Coalition’s relationship to the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards?
The Clean Budget Coalition started off as a project of the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards (CSS), which opposes anti-regulatory legislation proposed in Congress. CSS took an interest in the riders problem because many of the riders proposed for inclusion in the budget are anti-regulatory in nature: in other words, they weaken, block or repeal regulatory safeguards that protect American workers, consumers and families as well as our environment and our economy. Some riders even attempt to sabotage the federal rulemaking process itself. CSS established the Clean Budget Coalition in response to these concerns. Yet even after just a few short years, the Clean Budget Coalition already has gained a reputation on Capitol Hill as an agile and effective force for good, trusted by our allies and respected by our adversaries.
Is there a difference between the budget and appropriations?
Yes, but outside of Capitol Hill, the two terms often are used interchangeably. The budget addresses top-line funding levels for the major government bureaus, commissions and departments. Appropriations refers to the legislation that funds specific programs and agency activities. When our coalition members call for a “clean budget” with no harmful riders, we mean that to be inclusive of any and all legislation related to government funding.
Who is behind all the harmful riders?
Republican lawmakers in both chambers of Congress are behind most of the harmful riders. Unlike proposed legislation, riders seldom have a sponsor’s name on them — making it difficult to draw clear lines of responsibility or hold lawmakers accountable. Riders make it easy for members of Congress to evade accountability, which is why there are so many of them.
Exactly how many bad riders are there?
Finding all the riders and tallying them up is a Herculean task. Most riders are deliberately hidden in obscure sections of lengthy and complex appropriations bills, making them exceptionally difficult to spot. Even for professionals, it’s easy to read a passage of legislative text and not even realize you’re looking at a rider.
In past years, we have counted as many as 750 riders attached to the various appropriations bills — nearly all of which were eventually removed thanks to the hard work of our coalition members. This year, we are expecting hundreds of riders to be proposed for inclusion. No matter how many there are and how well hidden they might be, we will fight to remove as many of them as we can.
Can you give some examples of riders?
Take a look at the articles, opinions pieces and blogs in the news and resources section. Some of the riders are described there. There are riders that would remove from Endangered Species Act protections for grey wolves, repeal the Clean Water Rule, strike down the fiduciary rule requiring financial advisors to act in their clients’ best interest, block women’s access to health care, and many more. With potentially hundreds of harmful riders in play, they affect nearly every issue and constituency under the sun.
Are riders worse than earmarks?
Yes, by far! Before they were banned in 2011, earmarks simply directed funding to a specific recipient or project — usually one in the home state or district of a particular lawmaker. Earmarks traditionally were used by lawmakers to reward and thank their constituents by showering them with federal largess. They were banned because the costs of allowing earmarks for all 435 representatives and 100 senators started to add up. But even with thousands of earmarks in every budget cycle, the worst that could happen is that a few billion dollars might be spent wastefully: clearly not ideal, but hardly catastrophic when you consider the enormous size of the federal budget and our economy.
In contrast, even a single policy rider has the potential to make sweeping changes to national policy with potentially life-altering consequences for tens of millions of Americans. In 2016, a rider got through that many experts believe will transform global energy markets, with unknown consequences for world affairs and our energy security. No matter how you feel about the underlying policy, does it make sense to sneak through a policy change of that magnitude in secret with no discussion or debate? That’s what riders do — they circumvent the democratic process.
Americans deserve an honest debate about funding levels, but we can’t have that debate while budget legislation is being used to enact sweeping policy changes that have little or nothing to do with funding our government. At least earmarks have something do to with spending. Riders do not and should be taken off the table in this debate.
What happens if lawmakers fail to pass government funding legislation in time?
One of the chief dangers riders pose is that their inclusion in appropriations legislation continually risks a government shutdown. When a deadline to pass government funding legislation approaches, that deadline indicates when government funding is set to expire. If lawmakers do not pass legislation to reauthorize funding, then the government shuts down.
In a government shutdown, most of the federal government’s civilian employees are furloughed — sent home without pay until funding is restored. National parks, museums and galleries close, many government services and monitoring programs pause their operations, and payments to contractors and small companies that do business with the federal government are delayed. While the military and post offices remain open and members of Congress still get paid, the economic impacts of a shutdown are estimated to be in the neighborhood of about $1.5 billion in losses per day, though they can run significantly less or more than this depending on the circumstances of the shutdown.
If lawmakers reach in impasse in budget negotiations ahead of a fast-approaching deadline, a common strategy used to avoid a costly and disruptive shutdown is passing a short-term continuing resolution (CR). A CR simply extends current government funding levels for a matter of days, weeks or months — giving lawmakers more time to negotiate and resolve disputes over funding levels and proposed riders. In most cases, a CR is preferable to a shutdown.
However, continually passing short-term CRs is no substitute for passing a budget. Agencies throughout the government depend on the annual budgeting process in order to plan their agendas and set priorities for the year ahead. Funding our government is Congress’ most basic responsibility, one that lawmakers must not be allowed to abdicate. Poison pill policy riders are a distraction from this obligation.
The federal budget process can be a cacophony of unfamiliar terms. Here’s what some of the more common ones mean.
Appropriations. The process of allocating funding for government programs and agencies.
Appropriator. A member of Congress who plays a leadership role in the federal funding process, usually one who sits on one of the 13 committees or subcommittees in each chamber that handle federal appropriations.
Budget. The federal budget is how Congress funds our government and the many essential services it provides.
Budget Resolution. A draft budget proposal voted on by each chamber of Congress. It lacks the force of law but provides general guidelines to the appropriations committees about overall funding levels for each department.
Clean. When a budget or bill is described as clean, it contains no policy riders or extraneous measures that are unrelated to its central purpose. For example, a clean budget would be one without any policy riders attached to it.
Continuing Resolution (CR). A bill that extends current government funding levels for several days, weeks or months — often passed to give lawmakers more time to negotiate.
Debt. The total accumulated value of all past deficits.
Deficit. When spending exceeds revenue in a single year’s budget.
Debt Ceiling / Debt Limit. After Congress appropriates funding, the U.S. Treasury Department must pay our nation’s bills. It does so by raising capital through taxes as well as by issuing bonds to investors, borrowing the funds. The debt ceiling caps how much Treasury may borrow, and must be raised periodically by Congress so that Treasury can continue to pay our nation’s bills. Most experts and economists believe that defaulting on the national debt by failing to raise the debt ceiling would destroy the full faith and credit of the United States and trigger a global economic meltdown.
Discretionary Programs. Funding for discretionary programs is set each year through the annual budget process. Congress controls whether and at what level to fund programs in the discretionary category. Discretionary programs fall into two categories. “Defense discretionary” includes the Pentagon’s budget and related military programs. “Nondefense discretionary” (NDD) includes everything else: medical and scientific research, education and job training, infrastructure, public safety and law enforcement, public health, weather monitoring and environmental protections, natural and cultural resources, housing and social services, and international diplomacy.
Earmarks. Funding directed to a specific recipient or project, often at the request of a single member of Congress. Congress banned earmarks in 2011.
Entitlements. A pejorative term used to attack popular and successful social insurance programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the Affordable Care Act.
Filibuster. Most legislation must win 60 votes in the U.S. Senate to be considered for final passage. However, Congress can insert reconciliation instructions into budget legislation bypassing this requirement, allowing it to pass with the support of a simple majority.
Fiscal Year. Institutional budgets, such as the federal budget, are organized around fiscal years rather than calendar years. The fiscal year begins on October 1 and ends on September 30.
Germane. Relevant to the purpose of the bill.
Government Shutdown. When federal funding expires, most government functions cease to operate until funding is restored. For a variety of reasons, government shutdowns are notoriously costly and highly disruptive to the public as well as government employees.
Leadership. The congressional leaders of each party in each chamber of Congress.
Minibus. A minibus is the combination of several appropriations bills into a single piece of legislation.
Must-Pass. Legislation that Congress is required by law or by circumstance to pass. Typically, the real-world consequences of failing to pass such legislation would be catastrophic to the nation or the world. Bills to fund the government or extend the U.S. Treasury Department’s borrowing authority are considered must-pass legislation.
Nondiscretionary Programs / Mandatory Spending. Some programs — such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the Supplemental and Nutrition Assistance Program — are funded automatically. In other words, their funding levels are not determined by the appropriations process.
Non-Germane. Not relevant to the purpose of the bill.
OMB (U.S. Office of Management and Budget). OMB is the White House budget office. It drafts the president’s budget proposal and advocates for the president’s budget in negotiations with Congress.
Omnibus. When Congress in unable or unwilling to pass appropriations bills one at a time (i.e. through regular order), all of the appropriations bills can be combined into a single massive government funding bill called an omnibus.
Poison Pill. A measure that has been attached to must-pass legislation that is extremely “difficult to swallow.”
Policy Rider. A measure attached to a piece of legislation that has little or no relevance to the purpose of the bill. Most policy riders are special favors for corporate interests or ideological extremists that could not become law on their own merits, so unscrupulous lawmakers attach them to must-pass legislation as riders.
Reconciliation. Reconciliation instructions allow a budget bill to pass in the U.S. Senate by majority vote, and they limit floor debate to 20 hours.
Regular Order. Each chamber of Congress is supposed to pass 12 appropriations bills — each funding different parts of the government — one at a time. This process is known as regular order. But for the past two decades, Congress has not followed it — despite pledges from the leaders of both parties to do so.
Skinny Budget. When a new president assumes office, the White House budget staff may not have time to prepare a full budget proposal. It is not unusual for a new president to release a skinny budget instead — a budget outline that lacks the detail of a full budget proposal.
Supplemental Appropriations. Supplemental appropriations bills provide new or increased funding for unexpected expenses.