Late Tuesday night, congressional negotiators unveiled a spending deal to keep most of the government funded through September 2015, but on Wednesday it became clear that the substantial policy concessions made by Democrats in a bid to attract enough Republican votes to keep the government open are likely to shrink the coalition supporting the last-minute bill.
The 1,600-page spending document could be forced through the House and Senate in less than one week, giving lawmakers little time to review its contents but enough time to be angered that certain controversial provisions were included, most notably major changes to two of the biggest laws approved by Congress since 2000, which had rewritten Wall Street rules and reformed the campaign finance system.
The current government spending bill expires on Thursday, and failure to pass new legislation by then will trigger another shutdown a little more than a year after Republicans forced a 16-day government closure in October 2013. That GOP standoff over defunding the Democrats’ health care law cost the nation an estimated $24 billion.
Though the so-called cromnibus bill funds the majority of the government through an omnibus package for the rest of the fiscal year, it pays for the Department of Homeland Security only through February via a stopgap measure known as a continuing resolution, or CR. Conservatives hope to isolate the department, which is tasked with implementing President Barack Obama’s recent executive order exempting millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation, and the bill will give Republicans a chance to freshly debate its funding in the new year, when they will control both the House and Senate.
Yahoo News’ list of the most interesting and significant policy changes in the year-end spending bill:
Eliminating a key Wall Street reform. The Democratic-controlled Congress in 2010 approved sweeping changes to the nation’s financial systems, many of them tailored to prevent the kind of crisis that tanked the economy in 2008. One of the centerpieces of the bill was a measure designed to spin off banks’ riskiest activities into subsidiaries, isolating the main functions of banks from those risks and also ensuring that taxpayers would not be on the hook to pay for losses created by those risky trades in the event that they failed. The spending bill approved by Congress eliminates the so-called push-out provision from the Dodd-Frank law, meaning that the trading of derivatives — the risky swaps or bets made against the rise and fall of value in assets — can now once again happen in-house in Wall Street’s largest banks.
Democrats led by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren are outraged by this return to old ways, and she has said she will oppose the whole bill if the provision remains in it.
Dismantling what was left of campaign finance reform. The Supreme Court since 2010 has repeatedly struck down political donation restrictions approved by Congress in the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. With the spending bill approved by Congress this week, lawmakers at the last minute agreed to undo the most significant remaining changes from the law: the limits for individuals on how much they can give to political parties. Before the change, which was inserted in the last few pages of the mammoth spending bill, the most any one person could give to a party group like the Democratic National Committee or Republican National Committee was $32,400 per year. Now any individual will be able to give anywhere from $97,200 to $777,600, depending on the interpretation of the language included in the government-spending bill.
Meddling in D.C. politics. Because the District of Columbia is not a state, it relies on Congress annually to appropriate its budget. And so Washington, D.C., perennially bears the brunt of congressional compromises as Republicans target D.C. programs to highlight social issues they oppose and Democrats acquiesce in the knowledge that the District will vote overwhelmingly for Democrats no matter what Congress does. During the first shutdown threat of Obama’s tenure in 2011, the GOP pushed through a ban on funds for abortion services in D.C. and started a school voucher program.
This year, Democrats agreed to support Republican language targeting a D.C. ballot initiative legalizing recreational marijuana, which voters approved by nearly 70 percent in November. The wide-ranging appropriations bill bars funds from being used for the implementation, regulation and taxation of marijuana and also, adding insult to injury, mandates that no money provided by Congress can be used by D.C. officials to petition for representation in Congress. Instead of a regular congressperson, D.C. has a delegate, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, who does not have voting privileges in the House.
Cutting IRS and EPA funding. Republicans are touting cuts to the budgets of the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. The spending deal reduces IRS spending by $345 million in an olive branch to conservatives still miffed over a scandal involving the agency and its targeting of political groups that were using nonprofit loopholes to avoid paying certain taxes. The IRS funding levels in 2015 will now be lower than they were in the 2008 fiscal year.
Republicans have cut the EPA’s budget for the fifth consecutive year. In a press release the day after the deal was announced, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, touted cuts to the EPA as one of the “Ten Things You Should Know About the Omnibus Appropriations Bill” and the fact that the bill reduces EPA staffing “to the lowest level since 1989.”
Setting up a messy immigration funding fight. A key feature of the deal for Republicans is that it funds most of the government while specifically preventing Congress from filling the Homeland Security department’s coffers. That particular bargain will allow the House and Senate GOP majority in 2015 to fight over how to appropriate overall Homeland Security programs while withholding funds for the implementation of the president’s immigration executive order. As Yahoo News previously reported, it will be difficult for the GOP to defund implementation of the order because the DHS agency that oversees immigration status changes is self-funded through fees it levies on immigration applications. And yet by agreeing to this particular deal, Democrats are setting themselves up for a messy fight with Republicans about the immigration issue at a time when they will have much less leverage to get their way.
Rolling back truck safety regulations. A policy rider added to the bill to sweeten the deal for Republicans will roll back truck safety regulations issued by the Department of Transportation in 2011 to prevent traffic accidents resulting from trucker fatigue. The two basic requirements were that drivers take a 30-minute rest break within the first eight hours of their shifts and take a “restart” period of 34 hours of rest weekly. According to the Department of Transportation, the “net effect of these changes was to reduce the average maximum week a driver could work from 82 hours to 70 hours.” Trucking companies have been lobbying against these changes and now appear to have secured a victory by getting their repeal included in the spending bill.
With less than two days to go before another government shutdown, last night House and Senate leadership unveiled compromise budget legislation nicknamed the “cromnibus” — a portmanteau of continuing resolution, or CR, and an omnibus spending bill. While the main flashpoint going into these negotiations was conservatives’ radical reaction to President Obama’s executive action on immigration, in the light of day, a number of other odious provisions threaten to derail the bill’s passage.
ThinkProgress has a good run-down of the cromnibus’ troubling last-minute additions: handouts to Wall Street, cuts to IRS enforcement, interference in D.C.’s new voter-approved marijuana legalization, and a cold shoulder to students, the homeless, and those in need of affordable housing.
But today’s focus is on how Congress tried to sneak through the removal of more campaign finance limits and hand more even more control of the political system to the wealthiest and corporations. On page 1,599 of the 1,603-page cromnibus, the last-minute provision dramatically increases the caps on donor contributions to the national political parties. Right now, the most any single person can donate to candidates, parties and federal PACs was $129,600 in a single year (already more than 2.5 times the nation’s median income). But in the current version of the cromnibus, a donor’s maximum contribution would shoot up all the way to $777,600, by raising the cap on donations to party conventions from $32,400 to $97,200. In addition, it allows the national party committees to establish separate accounts for buildings and separate accounts for recounts and legal fees. Add it all up and it means a new flood of money in politics from wealthy donors and corporation– indeed, it’s a crafty way to create a solution where a problem doesn’t exist.
While that provision is particularly noxious, Common Cause also reports that there’s an additional attack on transparency tucked away in the cromnibus. The bill blocks the President from requiring federal contractors to disclose their political donations. So not only could companies that deal directly with the federal government hide their donations in plain sight, their contributions to officeholders could jump dramatically.
BOTTOM LINE: This cromnibus is a canary in the coal mine for how Republicans plan to govern in 2015. It reflects their priorities to increase the influence of the wealthy while cutting transparency at the same time. It will take continued vigilance to make sure that people like incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who profess to be for the middle class, don’t get even more opportunities to take speech away from the average person and give it to those at the very top
The Wednesday editions of NBC Nightly News and ABC’s World News Tonight both spotlighted many Democratic lawmakers’ objections to portions of a proposed budget compromise in Congress. However, the two evening newscasts couldn’t be bothered to mention that many congressional Republicans and their conservative allies also object to parts of the bill, especially on immigration and on social issues.
ABC’s David Muir gave a brief underlining the “fine print” in the legislation, as a on-screen graphic labeled them, but he only included the impacts on liberal pet projects: [video below]
DAVID MUIR: An 11th-hour deal from Washington tonight to keep the government running, but some big surprises to make it happen. They have significantly weakened campaign finance reform. Donors can give up to ten times more than they can now to party committees. Congress also squashing a move, approved by voters, to legalize pot in D.C. Even First Lady Mrs. Obama’s healthy school lunch program taking a hit. Lawmakers begin voting on the measure tomorrow.
On NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams introduced correspondent Kelly O’Donnell’s report by outlining that “Congress has to pass a spending bill by tomorrow or risk another government shutdown. A deal was announced on this, but apparently, that was before all the people who will vote on it actually looked at what was in it. And now, the public is learning what was jammed into the bill when a lot of us weren’t looking.” Williams then underlined that “it may all fall apart just below the deadline.”
O’Donnell included only one Republican soundbite during the segment from House Speaker John Boehner, who complimented the proposed bill. The other three clips came from Democrats – including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who both reacted negatively to the compromise. She also highlighted the same complaints from liberals that Muir zeroed in on:
KELLY O’DONNELL (voice-over): Your Congress was gearing up to claim a big victory.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER, (R), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE (from press conference): I’m proud of the work that they’ve done.
O’DONNELL: Keeping the government open – not with another crisis-driven, short-term fix – but a real, year-long budget for nearly all federal departments.
SENATOR BARBARA MIKULSKI, (D), MARYLAND (from speech on Senate floor): What we’re talking about here is a monumental achievement.
O’DONNELL: A $1.1 trillion deal that includes new money to fight Ebola and ISIS militants; beefing up food safety inspections; and giving a small raise to most of the military – a huge package hammered out by a select group of Democrats and Republicans.
Sounds promising, right? Not so fast. When the 1,600 pages went public, surprise and anger – mostly from Democrats – who threatened to pull their support, when they learned the details in this must-pass bill.
REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI, (D), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: Our members are just very, very concerned about it.
O’DONNELL: Many Democrats don’t like a last-minute change from the top Republican leaders to alter campaign finance rules, so big donors can give ten times more money – up to $324,000; watering down requirements for school lunch nutrition, backed by Mrs. Obama; cutting staff at the Environmental Protection Agency; stopping the District of Columbia from legalizing marijuana; and most controversial: rolling back a current ban on taxpayer bailouts for big banks that engage in high-risk investments.
Liberal lawmakers, like Elizabeth Warren, say that can’t happen – even though it was part of a compromise deal.
O’DONNELL (on-camera, from press conference): The public says it wants compromise. Is this compromise gone wrong?
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: This isn’t about compromise. This is about reckless behavior.
O’DONNELL (live): Warren wants lawmakers to drop that bailout provision tonight, but that seems unlikely up against the deadline. Senior Democrats, who negotiated this deal, tell me they think they got the best package possible – especially when you consider Republicans will have more members and more power next month.
CBS Evening News didn’t devote any air time to the congressional action. Instead, the program aired full reports on their new poll on race relations in America; the “extreme weather” across the country; Senate Democrats’ CIA interrogation report and the “swift reaction to the Senate report from Muslim extremists;” new doubts about the alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia; and high school students’ views on race relations.
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