Taking the path to shutdown

You’d be tempted to throw the “do nothing” label on Congress if some of its members weren’t working so hard to avoid doing anything constructive.

Friday, the House is expected to vote on a measure to defund Planned Parenthood, stripping the women’s health network of funding for preventive medicine, such as screenings for breast and other cancers. It’s the latest attempt among conservatives to close Planned Parenthood over the relatively small number of abortions performed in its clinics, which amount to about only 3 percent of its services, none of which are supported by tax dollars. The Hyde Amendment already prevents any federal funds from providing abortion services through Medicaid, except in cases where the mother’s life is endangered or in cases of rape or incest.

Congress can have that debate and take such a vote, though President Obama has said he would veto such a bill. And we’ve warned that eliminating the funding could actually result in more abortions by making it more difficult for women to get effective family planning services. But it’s what may come after the vote that also is concerning, specifically the threat by some Republicans, that unless Planned Parenthood is defunded, to shut down the federal government by blocking a vote on the federal budget, which must be adopted before Sept. 30.

Regardless of personal opinions on abortion, a majority of Americans, 71 percent, say its more important for Congress to pass the spending bill than eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, according to a poll released earlier this week by CNN and Opinion Research; 22 percent favored zeroed-out funding for Planned Parenthood over budget approval. Even Republicans, by a slight margin, 48 percent to 44 percent, oppose a shutdown over the issue.

But that’s not the only game of chicken in town.

A long list of policy riders also threatens to weaken support for a budget bill that a majority in Congress can vote for. A coalition of 178 groups representing health, labor, environmental and social issues, called on Congress and the president last week to oppose what the group calls the “new earmarks,” legislation, most of it wholly unrelated to budget issues, that would roll back protections for clean air and water, and assurances for workplace safety, consumer protection and access to health care services.

“Stealthy, out-of-order maneuvers are used to force through unpopular legislative provisions, imposing enormous harm on the American public to benefit corporate donors,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, the umbrella group for the coalition.

Among the proposals now attached to the 2016 budget are riders that would:

  • Weaken a pending Food and Drug Administration rule on liquid nicotine and flavored cigars by exempting them from regulation;
  • Block the Securities and Exchange Commission from requiring publicly traded companies to disclose their political spending;
  • Roll back the Federal Communications Commissions’ recently adopted Net Neutrality rules;
  • Block science-based protections under the Endangered Species Act for wildlife, including the gray wolf;
  • Block rules that place limits on the number of hours truckers can drive without rest breaks.

And the list goes on.

Members of Congress have every right to seek consideration of proposals such as those above. Except that policy riders aren’t seeking consideration or debate; they’re seeking to avoid public scrutiny by hitching a free ride on a must-pass budget resolution.

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