U.S. House GOP in spending bills takes aim at federal LGBTQ, racial equity policies

US Capitol

by Jacob Fischler, Georgia Recorder, [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

November 3, 2023

U.S. House Republicans are continuing to use government spending bills to engage in culture war battles, with legislation debated during the past week that would ban pride flags on some federal buildings, strip funding from a new museum for Latino history and target certain LGBTQ and racial equity policies and programs.

The hot-button provisions in the bills to fund the Interior, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments are unlikely to become law after negotiations with the Democratic Senate. But they signal that the House Republican majority will maintain a strong focus on contentious social issues, as have their counterparts in GOP-majority statehouses.

Spending bills, particularly in the House, often include policy provisions favored by the majority party. But the level of detail in measures that historically have seen fewer such fights reflects a more aggressive position by House Republicans, observers said.

Democrats object to the overall spending levels in the Republican-written House spending bills, which are lower than detailed in the debt limit agreement House Republicans reached with President Joe Biden. But Democrats are also highly critical of the inclusion of cultural issues that have little to do with spending.

The bill to fund the Transportation Department and HUD and the bill to fund Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency “shove MAGA culture wars down the throats of the American people,” House Rules Committee ranking member Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, said on the floor Thursday.

The Transportation-HUD bill, votes on which were postponed to the week of Nov. 6, includes a contentious provision to block spending on three specific LGBTQ community centers in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. The language was adopted in a tense committee meeting in July marked by charges of hatred and bigotry by Democrats.

In a statement, Democratic Whip Katherine Clark of Massachusetts called the provision “one of the more brazen culture war moves this Congress.”

Spokespeople for House Appropriations Chair Kay Granger, a Texas Republican, and Transportation-HUD Subcommittee Chair Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, did not immediately return messages seeking comment Friday.

The Transportation-HUD bill and Interior bills would also block funding for LGBTQ pride flags at departments and agencies covered by the bills and include a provision that bans disciplinary action for people acting on “sincerely held religious belief” against same-sex marriage.

The bill to fund the Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency and similar agencies, which the House passed Friday on a near-party-line 213-203 vote, includes provisions blocking funding for the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Latino, various diversity programs and the promotion of critical race theory. Congress authorized the museum, which would recognize the history, culture and accomplishments of Latino communities, in 2020.

Three Republicans, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Mike Lawler and Marc Molinaro of New York, voted against the bill. One Democrat, Vicente Gonzalez of Texas, voted in favor.

New fronts in culture war

Partisan provisions in spending bills are not new, said former U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican who sat on the House Appropriations Committee from 2011 to his retirement in 2018.

But they are generally more common in the bills related to health care, labor, education and homeland security spending.

Bills to fund military construction and the departments of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Interior and Energy “tended not to get as many bad ones,” Dent toldStates Newsroom, referring to partisan policies.

Republican amendments to limit spending seen as wasteful were “not uncommon,” but generally didn’t stray into cultural issues, he said.

The small-scale nature of some of the provisions appears more targeted than in past years, Sonya Acosta, a senior housing policy analyst at the liberal think tank Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, said.

“It’s not a new thing for members of Congress to have anti-LGBTQ policies,” Acosta said. “But to have them be so minute seems different.”

Appropriators, generally seen in Congress as moderates who must compromise, write contentious provisions into bills to mollify more extreme members, Dent said.

“This has been going on for years, and it’s only getting worse,” he added. “Just getting these people trying to force appropriators to write bills we knew could never become law. But it’s a wink and a nod: ‘OK, we’ll pass this piece of garbage out of the House and we’ll get to where we want to go in the end but we have to go through this process.’”

Environmental justice targeted

In another example, an amendment to the Interior-Environment bill offered by Texas Republican Chip Roy would block funding for environmental justice programs.

Biden’s Justice40 Initiative has sought to spend 40% of certain environmental and climate funding in disadvantaged communities that have been harmed by pollution and climate impacts.

“This entire ideology is based on the notion that federal environmental funding should be allocated based on immutable characteristics,” Roy said on the House floor Friday, apparently referring to environmental justice efforts targeted to communities of color.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat who is the ranking member on the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, responded that undesirable sites such as landfills, incinerators and radioactive waste storage have often been placed in low-income communities.

Environmental justice initiatives seek to reverse that historic discrimination that has resulted in communities seeing lower property values, higher health care costs and shorter lifespans, she said.

“Why would my colleagues try to defund any efforts to improve the lives of people in rural and low-income communities?” Pingree said. “I’m sorry, but it’s just another attempt to implement an extreme agenda to attack minority groups at all costs, and to return the U.S. to a time when environmental discrimination was the norm.”

The House adopted Roy’s amendment on a 212-204 vote. Republicans Lori Chavez-DeRemer of Oregon and Fitzpatrick joined all Democrats present in voting against adoption.

The bill also included a provision to block funding “that promotes or advances” critical race theory, an academic field generally used in higher education that has nonetheless become a target of social conservatives worried that it is an example of reverse racism taught to young students.

The bill includes some funding for the Bureau of Indian Education, which supports schools on reservations. Another spending bill covering education, labor and health and human services also includes BIE funding.

Senate leverage

Spending bills are typically resolved by the leaders of each party in the House and Senate, Dent said.

Because of the nature of each chamber — and the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to pass legislation — the House version typically includes more partisan provisions that are stripped out of the final product. The Senate version is generally more bipartisan from the outset, giving that chamber the upper hand in negotiations, Dent said.

“Whatever bill crosses the finish line is not going to have these very contentious policy riders because they can’t get a bipartisan consensus in the Senate that would allow for 60 votes,” he said.

Dent, who was seen as a moderate during his time in office and has endorsed some Democrats since leaving Congress in 2018, criticized House Republicans for allowing a group of conservative hardliners to dictate the appropriations process.

“They go through this exercise all in an attempt to placate, pacify, appease, this hard-right group that didn’t support the budget agreement anyway,” he said. “All this time and effort to appease folks who are not going to end up voting for the bill anyway.”

But including such provisions in the House bill allocating housing funds still has consequences for LGBTQ people, Acosta said.

“LGBTQ folks experience homelessness at higher rates,” she said. “And part of that is because of the attitudes that are now being promoted at the federal level. And so that’s only going to exacerbate the issues that are happening on the ground.”

Seeing that could make LGBTQ people less likely to feel comfortable seeking services, Acosta added.

“Even if it’s just around messaging,” she said. “That messaging is incredibly harmful and counter-productive.”

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