5 Awful Things Congress Snuck Into the Omnibus Budget Deal
On Thursday night, the US House passed the omnibus spending bill - backed aggressively by President Obama and GOP leadership - to avert another government shutdown and put off our next completely avoidable, 100% self-imposed budget crisis until next September. The yes votes prevailed 219 to 206 despite vocal opposition from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi who was joined by 16 House Republicans. 57 House Democrats voted yes with House speaker John Boehner and the White House.
Elizabeth Warren is leading a group of Senators decrying obscene handouts to the biggest banks, but it does not appear she will be able to stop the spending bill. After the House vote Thursday night, the New York Times reported, "The legislation now heads to the Senate, which is expected to pass it in the coming days."
The kind of corruption that the omnibus bill embodies is exhibit A for why our nation is failing. It is why 91% of Americans don't approve of Congress. It is the auctioning of our government to big money special interests on grotesque display for all the world to see.
And if you're a sold-out Congressperson looking to sneak through something shady, the omnibus budget bill is the perfect opportunity since 1) It's 1600 pages long and relatively easy to hide things in, and 2) Congress has to pass it or the government shuts down. Again.
So naturally, there are a whole lot of shady things in there. Here's 5 of the most awful ones -- everything from crazily wasteful spending to putting taxpayers back on the hook to bail out the largest banks.
#5) $479 MILLION FOR WARPLANES THAT THE PENTAGON DIDN'T ASK FOR
Congressional appropriators ordered four more F-35 joint strike fighters at a cost of $479 million dollars, even though the Pentagon didn't ask for them. The F-35 program has a long, sordid history of running behind schedule and over budget, and is on track to cost American taxpayers more than $400 billion dollars. Despite the crazy amount of money we've poured into the F-35 project, it continues to run into minor technical snags like the inability to "turn, climb, or run."
None of this has stopped Congress from continuing to fork over funding though. In what we're sure is a completely unrelated coincidence, Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor receiving billions of taxpayer dollars to build the F-35, spent more than $28 million on political contributions and lobbying in the last election cycle alone.
#4) $93 MILLION CUT FROM THE WOMEN, INFANTS AND CHILDREN NUTRITION PROGRAM
Since those shiny new F-35s aren't going to pay for themselves, Congress did manage to trim a few areas of the budget. For example, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly referred to as WIC, was on the receiving end of a $93 million budget cut. WIC provides low-income mothers and children with vouchers that can be exchanged for food which meets certain nutrition guidelines, although I imagine they'll be handing out a few less vouchers after this deal goes through.
If you're a family that depends on WIC to put food on the table, this is terrible news. Maybe those low-income women, infants and children could try hiring some lobbyists.
#3) NULLIFICATION OF VOTER-BACKED MARIJUANA LEGALIZATION IN D.C.
The 2014 Midterms saw voters in Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C. vote to legalize Marijuana for recreational use. Unlike in Alaska and Oregon, however, the D.C. ballot measure is subject to congressional approval. So, despite the fact that the actual citizens of Washington, D.C. voted for legalization by a margin of more than 2 to 1, anti-legalization advocates in Congress attached a rider that completely undoes the voter-backed change and keeps Marijuana illegal.
While this is basically a middle finger to the 70% of D.C. residents who voted for legalization, I'm sure the pharmaceutical industry and alcohol manufacturers -- both of whom regularly fund anti-legalization campaigns and spend millions of dollars every year to buy political influence -- are pretty happy about the outcome.
#2) MAKE TAXPAYERS BAIL OUT BIG BANKS...AGAIN
After the 2008 financial crisis, a lot of people were understandably upset about derivatives -- a financial instrument that led to the crisis and taxpayer bailout of banks and insurance companies.
As Ben Protess of the New York Times explains, Congress used the 2010 Dodd-Frank law to create "a requirement that banks "push out" some derivatives trading into separate units that are not backed by the government's deposit insurance fund. The proponents of the push-out rule argued that it would isolate risky trading from parts of a bank eligible for a government bailout."
Since everyone from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street was infuriated by the big bank bailouts, you'd think Congress would be proud of a measure that makes bailouts less likely. Instead, they're using the omnibus bill to sneakily kill it.
The current budget deal includes a repeal of the Dodd-Frank derivatives rule that was literally written by big bank lobbyists -- A leaked document obtained by the New York Times revealed that 70 of the 85 lines of derivatives language reflect recommendations made in a piece of model legislation drafted by lobbyists for Citigroup, another bank that played a major role in the 2008 crisis and also received billions of federal stimulus dollars.
If all of this sounds familiar, it's because the House passed the exact same CitiGroup-written law last year, but it died after resistance from the Senate and Treasury Department. Now, Wall Street's allies in Congress have effectively copy-pasted the CitiGroup-approved language out of the old bill and into the current budget deal, which is much less susceptible to a veto threat since a veto would shut down the government.
As an aside, did you know Wall Street spends $1.5 million per day to buy influence in Washington? Looks like their investment is continuing to pay off.
#1) MORE BIG MONEY IN POLITICAL ELECTIONS
So, by now you've probably noticed a theme developing here. Everything on this list is a direct result of money pouring into our political system. That brings us to our #1: the huge political money loophole that Congress snuck into the budget deal.
In a provision conveniently located on page 1,599 of a 1,603 page document, Congress allows individuals to give more than $300,000 directly to political parties every year. According to the Washington Post's Matea Gold, under the new rules, one couple could legally funnel nearly $1.3 million to a party's various accounts. Check out this great breakdown from Jay Riestenberg for the full ins and outs of the new rule.
As the public debate over the budget bill devolves into partisan finger-pointing, it's especially important that we don't lose site of this critical fact: Both major parties had a chance to stop this new political money loophole, and neither of them did. NPR's Peter Overby reports that "the changes in campaign finance law surfaced without fanfare during negotiations when either Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could have vetoed them."
When we say that money has corrupted American government, this is exactly what we're talking about. Special interests pour money into our political system, and our government doles out favors in return, will of the people be damned. Until we put an end to this kind of corruption, all of us will continue to get screwed over by budget deals exactly like this one.
Now here's the good news: There's a plan to tackle this corruption head-on, and it's already falling into place. Citizens of all political stripes -- conservatives, liberals, and everyone in between -- are already working together to pass a wave to tough new anti-corruption laws in cities, states, and eventually Washington D.C. The first city-wide Anti-Corruption Act in the US passed on election day 2014, and more cities and states are on the way in 2015 and 2016.
So by all means, get furious about the cronyism and special interest carve-outs in the coming budget deal. As long as you also get busy fighting back against the root cause.