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SWAG Bag Politics in Government Funding Bill

by Nan Swift / /

In the twilight days of the 114th Congress, the decision to punt on final spending levels for Fiscal Year 2017 until early in the next year seemed to make a lot of sense. With Republicans in control of both chambers of the legislature, as well as the White House, the opportunity seemed ripe for putting together an appropriations package that cut spending, reduced the deficit, and prioritized conservative policies.

Unfortunately H.R. 244, the Consolidated Appropriations Act (or omnibus), does few of these things. The bill pays lip service to spending restraint in that, apart from off-budget gimmicks and emergency spending, the overall levels comply with the 2015 Bipartisan Budget Act, itself an upwards revision of the 2011 Budget Control Act. Rather than demonstrate the fiscal responsibility taxpayers have been repeatedly promised, deal brokers appear to have thrown together a host of questionable spending items in order to maximize support for a shoddy product.

Anyone who has ever attended a conference is familiar with the standard bag of freebies everyone receives, often referred to as swag; shorthand for “Stuff We All Get.” H.R. 244 is full of “Spending We All Get:” carve-outs, give-aways, and more wasteful spending. In short, something for everyone.

Except taxpayers, who need massive reforms to rein in our crushing debt.

Read on for a detailed look at some of the pros and cons in the latest omnibus.

Pros

  • No Funding for Obamacare: For weeks there has been intense speculation over whether or not funding for Obamacare’s cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments would be included in the omnibus. Funding for these direct payments to insurance companies to offset the high cost of premiums for low-income Americans was never appropriated by Congress. That didn’t stop the Obama Administration from illegally making the payments out of Health and Human Services coffers. Now the subject of an ongoing lawsuit over Executive and Legislative branch authority, the best way to resolve the future of CSR payments once and for all would be to act quickly to repeal Obamacare.

  • DC School Vouchers: The DC Scholarships for Opportunity and Results program is reauthorized through 2019. The program delivers vital educational choice for District students.

  • IRS Reforms: H.R. 244 maintains critical taxpayer protections from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) overreach, including prohibitions on targeting organizations or citizens for exercising their First Amendment rights, funding bonuses or rehiring former employees without consideration of conduct and tax compliance, and wasteful spending on conferences and videos.

  • Targeted Spending Reductions and Regulatory Relief: A significant number of wasteful or duplicative projects would see spending cuts under H.R. 244, such as high speed rail and TIGER grants. Part of the National Infrastructure Investment program, TIGER grants have been targeted at least twice by the Government Accountability Office for problematic program selection procedures. H.R. 244 further gives relief or flexibility from burdensome regulations, like the Clean Power Plan and Obama-era trucker rules.

Cons

  • Perpetuates Pentagon Waste: H.R. 244 makes no attempt to reverse years of fiscal irresponsibility at the Pentagon. Unwilling to make the funding decisions necessary to comply with the budget caps of the past five years, this legislation once again resorts to using the Overseas Contingency Operations account as an off-budget slush-fund. In addition, there are billions of dollars in spending on things the Pentagon never even requested, as detailed by our friends at the Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS).

  • Protectionism: “Buy America” provisions are littered throughout the legislation for water and waste disposal programs, anchor and mooring chains - and everything in between. This type of corporate welfare reduces competition and can often increase the underlying price of the project or item, wasting taxpayer dollars. Further, the Food for Peace program is little more than a cash-grab by U.S. Big Ag. Flooding localities with cheap U.S. commodities can distort local markets and exacerbate food instability. Restricting the use of tax dollars to domestic products and U.S. flagged ships can increase the cost of providing food aid, resulting in both taxpayers - and those in need - receiving less.

  • Cotton and Dairy Subsidies: It could have been worse? That’s the best that taxpayers can say about the cotton and dairy provisions in H.R. 244. Earlier discussions threatened to add cotton to already problematic crop insurance programs, as explained in this TCS-led coalition letter. The dairy industry sought a hike to taxpayer-backed revenue guarantees. Both changes would have increased costs to taxpayers and made it more difficult to achieve reforms in the upcoming Farm Bill. Taxpayers were pleased to see those specific provisions dropped, however, the legislation stipulates that the Secretary of Agriculture should act quickly to extend the same “administrative options” (i.e. surplus buyouts) to cotton that it already does for dairy. TCS explains it best, “This is Congressional-speak for do all you can administratively to shovel us more cash until we pass a farm bill that legislatively forces taxpayers to give us even more cash.”

  • Policy Riders: Taxpayers were hoping that key conservative policy riders from earlier appropriations bills would make it into the final text. Unfortunately, few did. Notably absent is language regarding Food and Drug Administration regulation of new tobacco products, like e-cigarettes, a prohibition on funding for the Department of Labor’s onerous “Fiduciary Rule,” or protections to safeguard taxpayer data held by the IRS from identify theft and fraud.

  • Emergency Medicaid Funding for Puerto Rico: Although this funding may have helped to prevent even more people from fleeing the Commonwealth for Medicaid treatment on the Mainland, which would be more expensive for taxpayers over the long run, it puts off more fundamental decisions on important programmatic reforms. [Learn More]

This disappointing omnibus underscores the need for sweeping procedural changes. As numerous commentators have pointed out, the last time the appropriations process was finalized before the start of the new fiscal year was 1996. This means that most legislators haven’t had the opportunity to weigh in on individual appropriation bills, neglecting the critical oversight role of Congress.

Large packages cobbled together under the looming threat of a dreaded government shutdown almost always requires more spending - not less - in order to buy up necessary votes. Worse, both legislators and the public have little time to fully parse such enormous bills. And, because lawmakers waited until the eleventh hour to consider a spending package everyone was anticipating for months, Congress is now already far behind in making appropriations for Fiscal Year 2018. Despite promises to the contrary, this means there’s little reason to hope that without process changes anything will change.

Worst of all, the growing difficulty faced by Congress to pass legislation increases the risk that earmarks could make a comeback. In order to reach a deal on H.R. 244, negotiators had to pack it with that “Spending We All Get.” It’s not a big step from here to earmarks - a step in the wrong direction.