The Republican Party has rarely shied from testing its powers to the fullest possible extent, up to and past the point of unscrupulousness and rank hypocrisy. Defending socioeconomic hierarchy has always been its central task, but the GOP in its current incarnation can seem particularly rabid. The Trump presidency seems to have perceptibly eroded decorum and staid political procedure while at the same time unleashing grotesque hatreds.
Now, embodying both of those trends, Republicans in the House of Representatives are working to realize their reactionary agenda by underhanded, deceptive means: the use of riders, commonly known as “poison pills.”
Riders are additions or alterations that are surreptitiously inserted into major legislative spending packages. To avoid a government shutdown, it’s often urgent that these bills are passed — chief among them, the 12 standard major appropriations and/or omnibus bills that recur each fiscal year. Republicans are the House majority at present, granting them effective control over the creation of bills in the committee and markup process, and providing ample opportunity to weasel in grievances and giveaways in hopes that the bill will carry them through unnoticed or unopposed.
The poison pill has become a favorite ploy, and dozens appear on a regular basis, adhering leech-like to federal budgets. To smuggle them in, staffers will obscure poison pills in arcane legal language and plant them deep within voluminous legislative texts. Each must be identified and plucked out before the deadline for major budgets on September 30, 2023. The intent behind the rider is to sidestep debate and sneak in measures that would be otherwise impossible to pass into law — which range from petty culture war point scoring to disparaging and rescinding civil rights.
A Decade Without Earmarks
The Clean Budget Coalition (CBC), comprising more than 270 member organizations, has been operating to oppose riders since 2015. The CBC works to educate lawmakers and the public alike about the poison pill strategy, urging constant vigilance. Duly so, as the poison pill threat is incessantly renewed: The CBC has logged new parasitic additions at rates up to several dozen per week — in some cases, more than 100.
David Rosen is the communications officer for CBC and Public Citizen (a member organization of the former). In an interview with Truthout, Rosen elaborated on the disingenuous poison pill practice and the CBC’s opposition work. This reliance on poison pills originated, Rosen pointed out, from the 2010 congressional ban on earmarks, i.e. individual carve-outs that could be added to a bill by representatives to direct funding to local projects, delivering for their constituents — and to their donors and allies.
Earmarks can certainly be a vehicle for corruption in their own right; their improper use has been at the heart of some infamous scandals. Still decried by the right, at least in public statements, the use of earmarks has often been branded “pork barrel” spending. (Opposing them is a cheap way to posture as an anti-corruption, small government and anti-spending firebrand; privately, earmarks might have more tacit supporters than is immediately apparent. In any case, Republicans are neither for small government nor conservative spending, at least when it comes to expanding the military, police and prisons, and using the state superstructure to tilt the playing field toward corporations and the rich.)
Despite their ambivalent ethical role in the past, there is a case to be made for earmarks. Earmarks empower the legislative branch to bring often legitimate funding to constituencies. They can also ease partisan gridlock by winning votes by quid quo pro to get budgets passed. There are reasonable means of safeguarding their function and delimiting abuses. Moreover, eliminating the earmark did not eliminate congressional duplicity, nor did it stanch the influence of capital in the proceedings.
When earmarks were reintroduced in 2021 after a bipartisan committee vote, they carried new stipulations: Now called “community project funding,” they are “designed mostly for local government projects and not lobbyist-backed private contractors,” writes Washington Post Congressional Bureau Chief Paul Kane. Earmarks can help a representative secure funding for infrastructure projects or public programs. They can also direct yet more millions to police departments.
The CBC, explained Rosen, is not out to oppose earmarks: They can give “lawmakers an incentive to vote for spending bills they might otherwise reject. Whatever their individual merits or lack thereof, earmarks are still spending that benefits people and usually local economies.”
Yet the 2021 restoration of earmarks did not spur the GOP to abandon the poison pill — quite the opposite.
Reactionary Wish Lists
Now, at least for some House Republicans, there’s an attractive alternative that facilitates what the new earmark mechanism eliminates: namely, flagrant double-dealing. Better still, riders also allow representatives to make overtures to their constituents’ reactionary wish fulfillment. In contrast to earmarks, poison pill riders are used to “make sweeping, harmful, controversial policy changes that the public does not support, have nothing to do with funding our government and could not become law on their own merits,” Rosen says. “Many riders are little more than special favors for Big Business or ideological extremists.”
This is more or less exclusively a right-wing phenomenon. Democrats have generally not employed the poison pill strategy, with the exception of oil goon Sen. Joe Manchin, who has proven willing to sink to that level before. His latest effort comes in the form of a rider appended to the Fiscal Year 2024 Financial Services and General Government bill that would preemptively halt a potential ban on gas stoves. (Genuflecting as usual to his friends in fossil fuels.) Neither do Senate Republicans sanction riders, as a bipartisan senatorial agreement has disallowed them. Poison pills are a thing of the House, proliferating in appropriations subcommittees on Republican-drafted spending bills, making the result more than a little unpalatable. “It’s not even clear yet if the House Republican bills can pass on the floor, and the legions of harmful riders are part of the reason why,” Rosen added.
The CBC and Public Citizen are referring to a group of notable poison pills as the “January 6” riders, for their anti-democratic bent. The “Politically Sensitive Investigations Rider” seems designed to stall or stymie investigations into “elected officials or their family members, political candidates or their family members, political organizations, religious organizations and members of the media.” Funding for these proceedings would be blocked until Justice Department policy stipulates that “non-partisan career staff [will] oversee such investigations.” Given the embattled position of our most-indicted former president, this rider seems a particularly ham-fisted attempt to put up hasty barricades against federal investigation.
Another rider would defend the practice of gerrymandering that has illicitly secured so many right-wing electoral wins: It would prohibit funds for lawsuits against a state or local government “over its potentially unlawful redistricting plans.” Also among the January 6 riders, is one that would block efforts to address violent threats against school staff and another that prohibits funding Department of Defense oversight that could stop “white supremacist, extremist and criminal gang activities by members of the Armed Forces.”
This is only a tiny sampling. Lisa Gilbert is the executive vice president of Public Citizen, and a co-chair, with Rosen, of the CBC. Writing on the Public Citizen site, Gilbert flagged two riders that are especially friendly to Big Tobacco, an industry that reliably donates to the right. One would block the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from “proposing a rule to reduce nicotine levels in cigarettes to make them less addictive.”
The list stretches on: There are poison pills targeting the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor, campaign finance regulation, the World Health Organization and a certain type of bird. Rider policies variously seek to attack enemies like immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, children’s food programs, pregnant people and, it would seem, almost any other person in need.
Meanwhile, agribusiness is set to benefit. So too are polluters, processed food industries, white supremacists and arms dealers; if certain riders were to pass, they would all be protected in various ways, from competition or from investigation. As would outright scammers: multilevel marketing companies, for-profit colleges and dishonest car salesmen may enjoy a federal blessing. The right’s morally bankrupt priorities, from the sinister to the absurd, are all in evidence.
“Legacy” riders also represent an ongoing threat. Lodged like tenacious parasites in spending bills, these tend to reappear and be renewed each fiscal year; some have persisted for decades. As Gilbert wrote last year in The Hill, “Probably the most notorious legacy rider of all is the Hyde Amendment,” the 1976 ban on federal funding for abortion procedures. Its staying power is evident: Despite their promise to eliminate it in 2022, Democrats left the Hyde Amendment in place to secure enough Republican votes to pass an agency funding bill. Hyde has also blossomed into new incarnations, with spinoff legacy riders extending its abortion bans into federal health programs that cover women’s prisons, government employee plans and the Peace Corps, as well as Medicaid coverage in Washington, D.C. Now that such provisions are implanted within key spending packages, Republicans can hold the vote hostage if Democrats threaten their removal.
Again, only a few glimpses are given here. The sheer number of riders means that they truly run the gamut of the right-wing imagination. Others propose reversing the FDA’s allowance of abortion medication; canceling funding for any kind of executive order or federal program directed toward racial equity in underserved communities; prohibiting funding for “critical race theory” (which to the right has effectively come to mean anything that acknowledges the fact of slavery and contests white supremacy); banning the flying of LGBTQ+ Pride flags at federal facilities; banning all funding for gender-affirming care; allowing discrimination based on a business owner’s opposition to same-sex marriage, and on and on. It is a repulsive litany of bigoted reactionary fantasies.
The picture of the modern right that emerges is an ugly one indeed. It is no surprise that House Republicans disdain anything that might limit their power or serve the public good. What is more novel is the abandonment of all pretense after the Trump administration first took power; the racism, homophobia, and so on are now touted with glee, what was once an inaudible “dog whistle” entering the register of the everyday. The reliance on riders indicates the right’s ideas are so repugnant they must attempt to slip them in, clinging to a large spending bill like a barnacle encrusted on a cargo ship’s hull.
Fortunately, poison pills are regularly located and removed, and legacy riders are not invincible. The CBC, which is the only major group that centers its efforts on the publicization and elimination of toxic riders, has made great progress on that front. Key to this work is the multifarious nature of the coalition, with each group able to focus on an area of expertise. An incessant stream of lawmaker meetings, media pushes, and various kinds of grassroots pressure are necessary to ensure that Democratic electeds take action. The CBC’s past efforts have led to the successful purging of nearly all Republican riders in budgets to date.
Riders remain an issue, but by carefully poring over bills (which can stretch to 3,000 pages), most can be readily spotted and eliminated. And of course, let us be reminded to never trust Republicans.
The present-day spate of poison pills is illustrative of just how radicalized and reactionary the elected right has become. Their eagerness to not only pursue classic right-wing priorities of further enriching the rich and empowering the powerful, but now to strip away the civil rights of their perceived enemies without feeling the need to even flimsily disguise their efforts, is indicative of the Republican Party’s extremist trajectory and its total capture by the Trump movement.
Perhaps the most decisive case could be made on the grounds of the attempted putsch that was January 6. But although the rider tactic is more traditionally procedural, the unvarnished hatred visible in these poison pills is just as glaring. Taken together, they put the right’s deepest revanchist impulses on display — and the resulting picture meaningfully amounts to what some on the left have been reluctant to call it: fascism.
Briefly, we wanted to update you on where Truthout stands this month.
To be brutally honest, Truthout is behind on our fundraising goals for the year. There are a lot of reasons why. We’re dealing with broad trends in our industry, trends that have led publications like Vice, BuzzFeed, and National Geographic to make painful cuts. Everyone is feeling the squeeze of inflation. And despite its lasting importance, news readership is declining.
To ensure we stay out of the red by the end of the year, we have a long way to go. Our future is threatened.
We’ve stayed online over two decades thanks to the support of our readers. Because you believe in the power of our work, share our transformative stories, and give to keep us going strong, we know we can make it through this tough moment.
Our fundraising campaign ends tonight at midnight, and we still must raise $17,000. Please consider making a donation before time runs out.