Surrounded by all that Green: Bi-partisanship Does Work, Right
Quite long post, but needs to be seen as the heart and soul (as it were) of the massive spending bill now the law of the land – the highlights:
The $1.8 trillion budget bill was signed into law (Note: Senate Added Money to House version) (NPR link) contains some tax breaks for low-income workers and protection of the ACA (Obama-care), and money to sustain Planned Parenthood, but in reality, it’s a bonanza for Big Business (surprise, surprise, surprise – Gomer Pyle expression).
Congressional leadership actually split the bill in two with one devoted to spending and the other devoted to cuts. That way (writes Paul Singer in USA Today) Republican conservatives can vote against the spending bill, Democratic liberals can vote against the tax bill, and both bills still pass and a government shutdown is averted. And, they have the audacity to call that a win/win or “bi-partisanship.” Hooah, except that BS might be the better word. Pleasing one side to protect their big money and donors is not bi-partisanship, but is simply politics as usual, and that is not in the best interest of the public across any and basically all lines. (Now, insert a second surprise, surprise, surprise). Now, let’s start with the fossil fuel industry that the recent Congressional vote to stop new EPA rules against carbon emission in the air.
• For 40 years, most Republicans and yes, some Democrats, have been demanding an end to the ban on crude oil exports. This omnibus bill lifts that ban just as the world community meeting in Paris agreed that emissions released from fossil fuels must be lowered if the planet is to escape incineration. Selling off cheap oil abroad is — if you choose to use this expression —is like throwing gasoline on the fire to put it out.
• Why the disconnect? Simple: the energy giants have money to burn, and that cash speaks louder than threats to the earth or its inhabitants (commonly known as mankind – since every living thing needs clean safe air).
• In the 113th Congress during 2013 and 2014, the fossil fuel industry spent $326 million and change on lobbying and political campaigns. In return, they received government favors totaling $33.7 billion. So, do the math: According to the advocacy group Oil Change International, for every dollar the oil, gas and coal industry spends on influencing Washington, it gets back $103 in subsidies. With this new spending bill, expect another gusher of donations to be coming in any day now.
Then also thanks to the Republican-controlled House, and to the applause of the NRA and the firearms industry, even in the wake of San Bernardino and every other mass killing this year, the bill also bans federal funding for public-health scientists to study the causes of gun violence (and continues to allow people on the no-fly list to buy guns). Concern for public safety right – yeah, right.
This might be a good place in insert this quote from Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a non-partisan watchdog who told The New York Times: “Anyone who wants to get anything done, who has already been frustrated by a virtually non- functioning Washington, is trying to cram whatever they can into this bill.” So what’s also in the bill besides the two items I addressed above?
The Washington Post sifted through the legislation, consulted supporting documents from Democratic and Republican aides, and called out some of the more notable and controversial elements below. For example, if you want to review detailed reports on all 12 parts of the spending bill contained in the over 2,000 pages), click here for the Republican summary, and here for the Democratic summary.
I have chosen these key elements from the bill – you may or may not like them, but I do like to track these kinds of things:
- OBAMACARE: Bipartisan win. The agreement delays three taxes that were included in the Affordable Care Act that have been the target of bipartisan disdain. The legislation would delay a tax for two years on medical device manufacturers and expensive employer-sponsored health plans known as the Cadillac Tax. The deal was sweetened even further by making the Cadillac Tax fully refundable once it is reintroduced. The bill also includes a one-year delay of a tax on health insurance plans that increases the overall cost of buying coverage pushed by Democrats. It also maintains a previous rider blocking funding for a program, known as “risk corridors,” meant to shield insurers from heavy losses during the transition to Obamacare. That provision has come to prominence recently as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has started touting his role in its adoption on the presidential campaign trail.
- REFUGEES: Democratic win. Earlier this month, 47 Democrats joined nearly every House Republican in voting for new restrictions on refugees from Iraq and Syria. That led many Republicans to demand that language be included in the spending bill. But most of those Democrats said they did not want the provision included after the Obama administration called the provision unworkable, and Democratic leaders kept it off the bill. GOP leaders, meanwhile, said they were more focused on tightening the visa waiver program.
- VISA WAIVER PROGRAM: Bipartisan win. Lawmakers of both parties scrambled to mount a response to the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and found common ground in reforms to the visa waiver program that currently allows 20 million visitors a year into the United States with minimal screening. The spending bill includes House-passed language that would increase information sharing with the 38 countries whose passport holders are allowed to visit the country without getting a visa, while also attempting to weed out travelers who have visited certain countries where they may have been radicalized. But the bill does not include changes proposed by immigrant advocacy groups that would exempt aid workers and some dual citizens.
- 9/11 RESPONDERS: Democratic win. Congress voted in 2010 to create a new federal health program for police officers, firefighters, construction workers and others who worked at Ground Zero in the immediate aftermath of 9/11; hundreds are suffering from cancer, respiratory illnesses and other maladies. But Congress put a five-year sunset on the program, and the re-authorization, primarily backed by Democrats and moderate Republicans from New York, turned into a bargaining chip for GOP leadership in recent weeks. The spending bill extends the health program until 2090 and adds another five years to a separate victim’s compensation fund, costing a total of $8 billion.
- ABORTION: Democratic win. Previous riders banning federal funding to perform most abortions and blocking the use of local and federal funding for abortions in the District of Columbia, as well as one blocking abortions for federal prisoners, will remain in force. Republicans did win a modest reduction in funding for the United Nations Population Fund, an organization that has been accused of supporting abortions abroad — a charge the organization denies. But the bill does not de-fund the Title X family planning or teen pregnancy prevention programs or include policy riders that would prevent Planned Parenthood from accessing federal health care funds, allow states to exclude Planned Parenthood or other abortion providers from their Medicaid programs, or allow employers to block their employees from receiving insurance coverage for abortion.
- RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT TAX CREDIT: Bipartisan win. The legislation would permanently extend and expand the popular tax credit for business research and development costs. Supporters say the credit is an effective way for the federal government to encourage businesses to grow and innovate. The agreement includes House-passed legislation that expands the credit to start-up businesses and allows businesses to claim credits of up to 15 percent of qualified costs. The provision has bipartisan support in the House and the Senate.
- CHILD TAX CREDIT: Democratic win. The agreement permanently extends the Child Tax Credit of $1,000 per qualifying child. The provision includes an additional refundable portion of the credit for low income workers that allows families that have a tax liability that is less than their credit to receive a cash refund equal to 15 percent of their earnings over $3,000. The legislation also prevents the threshold for the refundable credit from returning to the indexed amount of $10,000 in 2017. For example, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains: “a single mother with two children who earns $14,000 in 2015 could receive 15 percent of $11,000, or $1,650, as a refund.” Democrats lost the battle to have the $3,000 threshold indexed to inflation. The program was indexed until 2009. Republicans have said they are open to reopening those talks as part of future tax reform discussions.
- EARNED INCOME TAX CREDIT: Bipartisan win. The Earned Income Tax Credit is one of the rare tax breaks that has support from both Democrats and Republicans. The program was introduced by President Gerald Ford and has been expanded over the years with the support of both Republicans and Democrats. The year-end deal permanently extends the program, including a once-temporary expansion for families with three or more children. The deal also reduces the marriage penalty in the program by increasing the phase-out level to $5,000 for married couples.
- TAX CREDITS FOR COLLEGE: Democratic win. Democrats, led by Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore), pushed to make sure the legislation would permanently extend and expand tax credits for college expenses. The American Opportunity Tax Credit provides a $2,000 credit for tuition and qualified expenses for four years of post-secondary education. The first $1,000 of the credit is refundable and begins phasing out for individuals making $80,000 and couples earning $160,000.
- TAX CREDITS FOR TEACHERS: Bipartisan win. The legislation would permanently allow elementary and secondary school teachers to deduct up to $250 in qualified expenses on their personal tax returns. The cap would also be indexed to ensure the size of the credit grows with inflation.
- CHARITABLE DONATIONS: Bipartisan win. Democrats and Republicans both support measures that encourage charitable contributions from businesses and individuals. The tax agreement would permanently expand five credits. The first allows individuals, corporations and farmers to donate land to conservation. Individuals over age 70 1/2 would also be allowed to directly transfer up to $100,000 from an Individual Retirement Account to a qualified charity without penalty. The package also includes an expanded tax break for businesses donating food inventory, breaks for charitable donations related to owners of S-corporation small businesses and some modifications for tax-exempt organizations.
- CAMPAIGN FINANCE: Mixed bag. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed for language loosening federal restrictions on fundraising by political parties — a move meant to give parties more equal standing with independent “super PACs” that have the ability to raise unlimited amounts of money from private donors following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. But Democrats and conservative Republicans joined together to oppose any loosening of party fundraising, one of the key provisions of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, and the provision was not included in the spending deal. What was included was a Republican rider preventing the IRS from cracking down on the political activities of 501 (c) (4) nonprofit groups, who are allowed to spend on the “promotion of social welfare” with much less disclosure than a campaign or political action committee, as well as one blocking the Securities and Exchange Commission from taking action on a long-discussed rule requiring publicly owned companies to disclose their political giving.
- CLEAN WATER: Democratic win. The Environmental Protection Agency’s recent update of clean water regulations, known as the “Waters of the United States” rule, extended federal protection to new U.S. waterways — and provoked a stern response from Republicans, who said it would have a grave impact on farmers, ranchers and businesses. Democrats filibustered GOP attempts to block the rule this fall, and a push to include a rider in the spending bill also fell short. But the new regulations are on hold in any case: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit put the so-called “WOTUS” rule on hold in October.
- CLIMATE CHANGE: Democratic win. Republicans hoped to attack President Obama’s climate change agenda from at least two fronts. For one, they have tried to strike down or at least delay the Clean Power Plan rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, the first federal effort to limit carbon emissions from U.S. power plants. They also floated including language blocking Obama from sending federal funds to the global Green Climate Fund, a centerpiece of the international climate-change agreement reached this past weekend in Paris. Obama has pledged up to $3 billion in U.S. spending on the fund, which is meant to help poor countries cope with climate change. But Democrats were able to fend off both riders. The bill does include a new National Oceans and Coastal Security Fund that its sponsor, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), has said will “support work that helps Americans understand and adapt to forces like sea level rise, severe storms, and ocean acidification” related to climate change.
- LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION FUND: Bipartisan win. The spending bill includes a three-year re-authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal program dating to 1965 that helps public entities purchase property for environmental protection. The fund has landed in the crosshairs of some conservatives, notably House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), and the three-year renewal is considerably shorter than the 25-year renewal it last received.
- FINANCIAL REGULATIONS: Democratic win. Democrats rejected all riders that would repeal or scale back the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill. Republicans wanted to block a proposed Department of Labor regulation that requires retirement investment advisers not to consider how much commission or what fees could be collected when advising clients. That rider was not included in the deal, nor was a widely discussed proposal to reduce the number of banks subject to stricter financial regulations as “systemically important” institutions.
- GUNS: Republican win. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) led a push to end a ban on federal funding of gun violence research. Former Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) first sponsored the policy rider in 1995 to ban public health researchers from gun violence studies has repeatedly said that he regrets the amendment and did not anticipate its consequences. Democrats also pushed for a measure that would prevent individuals included on federal terrorist watch lists from purchasing weapons. There was some hope that the recent spate of mass shootings would spur action, but Republicans rejected both requests. They did not, however, succeed in adding several new policy riders that were not as well publicized, including one blocking the Justice Department from tracking the buyers of multiple long guns.
- IMMIGRATION: Democratic win. Republicans did not succeed in adding riders that would affect President Obama’s executive orders regarding enforcement of immigration laws, which they had sought last year, or local jurisdictions’ “sanctuary city” policies. The latter became a major conservative priority over the summer after a California woman was murdered in San Francisco by a Mexican immigrant who had been repeatedly deported.
- CYBERSECURITY: Bipartisan win. The omnibus also includes compromise language on information-sharing legislation that the House and Senate passed in various forms earlier this year, to encourage businesses to pass information about hackers and potential cyber threats and risks on to the government, in exchange for liability protections. The effort to pass cybersecurity legislation pitted businesses against privacy advocates, and dragged on for years as lawmakers argued about what limits would be placed on collecting the personal information of individuals who may have been shown to constitute a threat, which agencies would collect that information, and how widely it would be shared across the government. The legislation gained special urgency in the wake of several data breaches at major companies like Target and in the U.S. government, such as the theft of 22 million people’s information from the Office of Personnel Management’s systems. The House passed cybersecurity legislation earlier this year in two parts, while the Senate passed one cyber bill in October.
- FOOD LABELING: Republican win. The spending bill repeals federal laws mandating that meat packers identify where animals are raised and slaughtered. The problem was a World Trade Organization ruling finalized earlier this year holding that the labels were unfair discrimination against Canada and Mexico, nations that were thus entitled to levy retaliatory tariffs worth upwards of $3 billion. The farm industry blanched at the tariffs, and House Republicans voted overwhelmingly in June to end the labeling mandate, though many Democrats resisted changes, saying they would be bad for consumers.
- TRANSIT BENEFITS: Bipartisan win. The tax package includes a big win for public transit users who buy benefits pre-tax. The bill permanently matches the level of pre-tax transit benefits to pre-tax benefits for parking. Commuters of all stripes will be able to set aside $255 a month for either car or public transportation expenses. The provision was championed by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and had a lot of support from Democrats and Republicans in the House.