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Permanent Policy Riders Represent 'New Twist' in Annual Spending Debates

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A pair of firearms provisions buried deep within the chairman’s mark of the fiscal 2015 Commerce-Justice-Science funding bill highlight an emerging strategy in the annual debate over spending: Policy language that seeks to make permanent changes in the law.

Gun-related policy riders have long been flash points in the wide-ranging Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill, and the $51.2 billion version House appropriators plan to mark up Thursday would extend many politically divisive provisions that have been carried annually under the measure.

But the chairman’s mark also seeks to make two of those policy riders permanent: one concerning the import of antique firearms, and another related to the export of certain gun parts and accessories to Canada.

The “permanency” provisions are expected to spark opposition from Democratic appropriators with strict views about gun control at this week’s markup. But perhaps even more critically, the language also provides clues about how appropriators could exert their influence and make significant changes to public policy during a fierce midterm election year in which little legislation outside of spending bills is expected to move.

The strategy is a “new twist” on an old debate, said Rep. Chaka Fattah, the ranking Democrat on the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations subcommittee, who says he has seen a “ramp up” in permanency language in the C-J-S bill in recent years.

Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, a senior GOP appropriator who chairs the Energy-Water subcommittee, said permanency language could be more appealing to members now because appropriations bills are must-pass measures in an otherwise gridlocked Congress.

“Maybe you might see it a little more often because of our inability to get other legislation through the floor. Or we’ll get it through the floor but it won’t get taken up by the Senate, so you put something in the appropriations bill,” said Simpson, who added that most attempts to add such language in the past were defeated and removed during House-Senate conference negotiations.

The provisions could, in effect, become extensions to the legislative currency that policy riders in appropriations bills have become in the wake of the 2010 earmark ban.

Strategy Debated

One of this year’s C-J-S riders would prevent federal funds from being spent on salaries or administrative costs associated with any effort to require Americans to have licenses in order to export certain gun components, parts and accessories to Canada. The other would bar federal money from being spent on salaries or administrative costs associated with any effort to deny Americans the ability to import certain guns, parts and ammunition that are categorized as antique or relic firearms.

While the two riders would be made permanent under the bill, fiscal 2015 is not the first time appropriators have employed the strategy, including on the subject of guns.

The fiscal 2013 continuing resolution (PL 113-6) made four gun riders permanent over the objections of liberal advocates who said the language would make it harder to crack down on the illegal use of firearms.

One provision required the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to emphasize in reports that its gun trace data “cannot be used to draw broad conclusions about firearms-related crime.” Another kept in place a broad definition of antique guns and ammunition that may be imported into the United States.

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