Lawmakers’ Policy Riders Roll over America's Health

Last month, many Americans watched Tour de France riders work their way across the French countryside and through city streets in the world’s most grueling cycling race. Sadly, far fewer are paying attention to the damaging policy riders buried in spending bills, hundreds of pages long, now working their way through Congress’ grueling annual appropriations cycle. As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details” and lawmakers probably hope these riders go unnoticed.

Policy riders, so named because they hitch a ride on legislation that spends federal money, are designed to shape public policy (some would say surreptitiously) in the absence of standalone legislation. They may prohibit the use of federal funds for a specific purpose, or stop certain programs and policies from ever taking effect. Since most everything the government does is tied to money, and spending legislation is considered “must pass,” some lawmakers use riders because they are effective policymaking (or blocking) tools that find their way into law with little public fanfare or outcry. Riders also guarantee anonymity. When you introduce a standalone bill, your name is attached to it. When you hitch a rider to a spending bill, you’re not publicly accountable for it.

Riders can be good, like a provision in one spending bill that requires federally-assisted libraries to block children from Internet pornography. But the majority tend toward bad and ugly. One proposed House spending bill—approved by the Appropriations Committee on the day of Charleston shooting victim, Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral—includes a rider that would prevent any funds from being used for gun violence prevention research and the collection of data on firearms-related deaths, even though firearms are a leading cause of traumatic death, particularly for America’s youth. Gunshot wounds cost more than $6 million dollars a day. They are the leading source of hospital stays by uninsured Americans, and so taxpayers pick up the bill. Such injuries and fatalities are completely preventable, and more research on the causes and effective prevention of gun violence would only equip policymakers and the public with the scientific evidence they need to improve public safety and security.

Another House spending bill includes riders that would impede the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to fully regulate certain emerging tobacco-related products, such as e-cigarettes, whose short- and long-term effects are largely unknown, and whose use among American youth is on the rise. Another bill would cut Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) funding for successful smoking cessation and tobacco prevention initiatives by more than half. Lawmakers would undermine these important public health activities, even though tobacco is widely recognized as Public Health Enemy Number 1. The CDC reports it is the single largest preventable cause of death and disease in the United States, killing more than 480,000 Americans each year and contributing to the incidence of largely preventable chronic diseases including cancer, lung disease, heart disease and stroke, diabetes, arthritis and more. It’s also expensive. Treating smoking-related illness costs Americans more than $300 billion annually.

Policy riders on the House and Senate spending bills also make it harder for American families to make healthy choices when it comes to what they eat and how they live. While more than two-thirds of American adults and a third of American children are obese or overweight—some Members of Congress seek to weaken the latest iteration of the evidence-based Dietary Guidelines developed by public health experts to curb this epidemic. Riders would restrict the breadth of evidence used in guideline development, and completely eliminate recommendations related to food safety, lifestyle modifications, physical activity, and hunger that have been scientifically proven to impact health. And after two years of deliberation and public comment, the riders would require yet another 90 days of public comment; a stall tactic to keep this important health policy from seeing the light of day.

If this weren’t enough, both chambers also include riders that would relax nutrition standards in school meals for schools and districts that show “hardship.” This rider runs contrary to common sense and public opinion; a recent survey shows a majority of both parents and students support healthy school meals. With one in three of our nation’s children overweight, the National School Lunch and National School Breakfast Programs provide tens of millions of children access to balanced, nutritious food—sometimes students’ only meals of the day. Healthy, school-based meals are essential tools in the fight against an obesity epidemic that will have devastating long-term consequences. Without action, today’s children may be the first generation in U.S. history to lead shorter lives than their parents. Childhood obesity is also the leading reason why otherwise eligible recruits are turned away from military service, threatening our readiness and national security.

The use of riders is nothing new. Under the U.S Constitution the “power of the purse” lies with Congress. Along with that power comes the prerogative to appropriate funding and direct or deny its use. But these and other policy riders on the 2016 spending bills—from restrictions on environmental health and climate research, to gutting the Affordable Care Act and women’s preventive health services—are particularly troublesome because they are politically motivated with little regard for science, public health, or even public opinion. The vast majority of these policy riders carry with them no savings. On the contrary, if enacted, riders that compromise our ability to prevent chronic diseases and injury would cost lives and money.

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