House Republicans are turning the federal funding process into a new front in the culture wars.
As the GOP-controlled Appropriations Committee prepares its version of the bills that underwrite the work of federal agencies, members are slipping in a wide range of new provisions that seek to undercut federal environmental and diversity policy.
That adds a new chapter to the ongoing saga in which Republicans have turned the budgetary process into a means to influence federal policy in the rest of government.
Last month, the House secured trillions in spending cuts and an easier permitting process for infrastructure as payment for passing the Fiscal Responsibility Act — the chamber’s version of the deal that aimed to raise the national debt limit and keep the federal government open.
In the deal, Republicans got far less than they had initially wanted, Appropriations Chairwoman Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) conceded in late May.
“Some of our friends are critical that we didn’t get more. I wanted more, too. But we got the change in direction we need, and we can’t lose that,” she said.
“We conservatives need to build on this win.“
The bills that the Appropriations Committee has released under Granger since May seek to advance conservative priorities by sliding language into the often-unrelated legislation that finances agencies like the departments of Agriculture or Defense.
That’s a “misuse” of the appropriations process, said Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of consumer advocacy nonprofit Public Citizen.
“Many of these policies are so unpopular and so clearly outside of public interest that they certainly could not pass on their own,” Gilbert said.
“So they were attached to a must-pass piece of legislation, and they’re riding along.”
Public Citizen is part of the Clean Budget Coalition, an alliance of more than 100 labor, civil society and environmental groups. The coalition has called on lawmakers to remove the 39 such “poison pills” in the appropriations package.
In a statement, coalition members called on lawmakers to remove “these unpopular and controversial special favors for big corporations and ideological extremists” from the must-pass legislation that keeps the government running.
These span a wide range of conservative priorities, from bans on drag performances and display of the Pride flag at federal facilities to prohibiting Biden administration environmental justice initiatives.
Here are five things these riders would do, from restricting LGBTQ rights and abortion access to kneecapping energy efficiency standards and keeping cigarettes high in nicotine.
Cutting medical care
Military personnel — or their partners — serving in states where abortion is illegal may get the Pentagon to pay for their travel to terminate a pregnancy.
Since 2021, the Department of Defense has also covered transition care for “a handful of million dollars per year” for the few thousand transgender service members in the U.S. military.
The House version of the Defense funding bill ends both policies. It “prohibits the use of funds for paid leave and travel or related expenses” for an abortion. Other language “prohibits the use of funds to perform medical procedures that attempt to change an individual’s biological gender.”
Other riders filed in May prohibit the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency from providing abortions and gender-affirming care to migrants in U.S. custody
Two riders take aim at medication abortions.
One rider reverses the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decision to allow the abortion pill mifepristone to be dispensed for home use through certain pharmacies, not just in person and in hospitals.
And a further rider in the House bill funding the agency seeks to protect “the lives of unborn children by including a provision that ends mail-order chemical abortion drugs.”
Legalizing discrimination in the military
Several riders in the Defense and Military Construction bills seek to counter attempts by the Biden administration to diversify the military — and its vast pool of contractors.
Under Biden, the Defense Department has described an increased focus on diversity as a means to “foster an integrated culture of agility, innovation, and acceptance.” It has described that goal as a means “ to prevail against the global security challenges facing the United States” and created a new title — the Deputy Inspector General for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility — to oversee it.’’
House Republicans disagree. A series of riders in the Defense Appropriations bill defunds that position for the Pentagon and prohibits the “implementation, administration or enforcement” of Biden’s executive order on diversity, equity and inclusion.
Others ban the use of drag queens as military recruiters or their employment in events like drag queen story hours.
And the Clean Budget Coalition argues that one innocuous-sounding pair of provisions — which prohibit “censoring [the] constitutionally protected speech of Americans” and protect them “against religious discrimination” — are a stealthy means to allow arms contractors to get around federal discrimination laws. The coalition contends this language allows defense contractors to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people on religious terms while allowing them to continue selling arms and components to the U.S. military.
Pushing back on environmental justice
Another cluster of riders seeks to block the Biden administration’s push to use the vast power of America’s energy spending and entitlement programs to reverse historical discrimination, particularly around land, water and the environment.
“A clear feeling in many minority communities is that they have been targeted for unwanted land uses and have little if any, power to remedy their dilemma,” a Department of Energy report concluded.
One attempt to address that history has been the Justice40 initiative, which seeks to put 40 percent of the benefits of any federal energy spending into disadvantaged communities. A rider in the Energy and Water Development appropriations bill defunds that initiative and blocks those communities from preferential access to resources around clean energy, energy efficiency and transit.
Other language in that bill takes back “billions of dollars in wasteful spending” from Biden clean energy stimulus packages, including $4.5 billion in rebates for new, non-polluting electric appliances and $1 billion to help state governments “implement the latest energy codes.”
Other riders seek to block the larger intellectual wellspring that environmental justice came out of. Separate riders block funding to agencies that use DEI, critical race theory — an academic framework evaluating U.S. history through the lens of racism that has become a political catch-all buzzword for any race-related teaching — and the concepts derived from them.
Another rider blocks federal enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act, which seeks to counter abusive or anti-competitive actions by big meatpackers.
Overriding environmental laws
This January, the federal government rewrote the definition of the Waters of the United States, a once-obscure bit of administrative law that has been hotly contested since the Obama administration. That administration’s policy of counting upstream and seasonal creeks as “waters” triggered a backlash from farmers and developers because it put such waterways — and any project that might impact them — under the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act.
While the Supreme Court threw out that Obama-era language in May — ruling that to be protected, wetlands had to be connect in an “indistinguishable” way to a navigable lake or river — the Biden administration had already moved on. A new “waters” definition considers “waters” to refer to any creek or waterway that has “a significant nexus” of connection to protected waters, even if that connection is only seasonal or underground.
A rider in the Energy and Water Development bill quietly blocks that new definition, thereby “returning to state control of waterways” that Republicans argue have “historically have not fallen under federal jurisdiction.”
Another rider targeted the new Energy Department efficiency standards for the national electric grid, which the agency said would save energy and cut fossil fuel use — particularly through the use of more energy-efficient forms of steel in the cores of new transformers.
But the transformer industry and many utilities argued that the new requirements were too stringent, too soon.
“This technology change will disrupt existing manufacturing processes for the entire industry and its supply chain, making the proposed January 2027 effective date a much too short timeframe,” transformer manufacturers Powersmith wrote in a comment on the proposed rule.
The House agreed. Its version of the Energy and Water Development legislation prevents the Energy Department from passing “onerous energy conservation standards on distribution transformers.”
And riders in the Agriculture and Rural Development bill ban eliminates funding for “climate hubs and climate change research and “conservation equity agreements,” as well as almost $4 billion in rural clean energy.
Keeping cigarettes maximally addictive
In June, the FDA proposed sweeping restrictions to the tobacco and flavored vape industries, which restricted the levels of nicotine — the addictive chemical in cigarettes and vapes — and banned flavors like menthol.
The FDA noted that these compounds are not toxic in and of themselves in announcements accompanying the proposed rules. But flavoring helps get people smoking, and while nicotine isn’t harmful in itself, “it’s the ingredient that makes it very hard to quit smoking,” contributing to nearly half a million premature deaths per year.
Riders slipped into the Agriculture appropriations bill eliminate those restrictions. Section 768 of that bill now bans the use of federal funds to “set maximum nicotine level for cigarettes,” while 769 prohibits any ban or standard setting around the use of menthol or other “characterizing flavors.”
Unlike most of the other measures, however — which conservatives promoted themselves under “Conservative Priority” lists in white papers summarizing the bills — the nicotine protections were curiously absent from the explanatory materials released by the Appropriations committee, though they made it into the actual bill.