The $1.1 trillion bill comes in at 2,009 pages and would fund the government through September 2016
It also folds in cybersecurity legislation, ends the oil export ban and lets kids go sledding on the Capitol grounds
Mimicking college students everywhere, Congress is waiting until the end of the term to get things done.
Lawmakers have crammed a year’s worth into two massive tax and spending bills they are expected – but not guaranteed – to pass later this week. Released in the middle of the night Tuesday, the measures detail how the federal government will spend $1.1 trillion on everything from national parks to NASA to veterans’ health. They also dictate new policy for cybersecurity, oil exports and suspend some Obamacare taxes.
They also saw fit to make sure kids – and kids at heart – can go sledding on the Capitol grounds this winter – if it ever snows.
Here are the big-ticket items:
Taking a bite out of Obamacare
Republicans have tried to repeal Obamacare and have it overturned in the courts – to no avail.
So in an era of divided government, the best the GOP could hope for was a compromise measure to chip away at it. The spending bill would suspend the implementation of two key Obamacare-related taxes for two years.
Lawmakers are targeting the so-called Cadillac tax on expensive health care plans and a levy on medical device taxes. The catch: these are provisions that swaths of both parties oppose so temporarily tossing them gives Republicans an opportunity to say they took aim at Obamacare without doing so in a way that would have riled up Democrats and threatened the deal.
Both levies help fund the health care law and suspending them could be the first step to a permanent elimination of the taxes. Even so, the White House seemed to ignore the suspension, releasing a supportive statement on Wednesday that instead focused more on provisions that make some middle-class tax cuts permanent and extend incentives for wind and solar energy.
Oil export ban lifted
Republicans pressed forward to lift the 40-year-old ban on exporting crude oil, a major priority of the oil lobby which lost its bid earlier this year to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.
The big drivers: high supply and low prices. Crude oil is currently below $35 per barrel, with gasoline under $2 per gallon at the pump in many places nationwide. And America’s shale oil boom means the scarcity that drove the ban in the first place doesn’t exist.
But this has proven to be one of the most controversial parts of the deal, with Democrats and environmentalists crying foul, saying it only encourages more oil and gas development.
At the same time, Democrats won tax credits for renewable energy sources like wind and solar in the bill, and avoided debilitating riders to Obama administration EPA regulations on climate change.
’Dark money’ will stay dark
The new bill will restrict the IRS’s ability to dig into politically active nonprofit groups – the 501(c)(4) organizations that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash without disclosing their donors.
Republicans have been up in arms about the IRS’s investigation of conservative political non-profits since it was revealed the agency was apparently using keywords like “tea party” to guide its investigations. So the agency will be limited in how it can regulate them.
But for campaign finance watchdogs, the rider is a disaster in that it means the so-called “dark money” groups may have very little limits on their activities and the public won’t know who is backing them.
That means if you want to know who’s giving money to groups like many in the Koch brothers’ network, President Barack Obama’s Organizing for Action and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, you’re at the mercy of the groups and donors choosing to make their activities public, or hoping for some good investigative reporting.
Also poised for passage with the omnibus is cybersecurity legislation that has taken years – and multiple congresses – to get over the finish line. Known by the buzzword of “information sharing,” the bill is designed to give companies legal cover to share data about cyberattacks with each other and with the government. The legislation would protect those companies from being sued for sharing that information, for example from antitrust claims.
The premise for the bill, which has been heavily lobbied for by the Chamber of Commerce and financial services sector, is that cyber attackers use the same techniques and tactics repeatedly on a wide range of targets. Allowing those organizations to communicate what they see and how they block it with each other, then, would give companies defending their computer networks an upper hand against hacks.
But while companies claim that they are unable to share information now for fear of lawsuits, the bill has been staunchly opposed by privacy and civil liberties groups who say it is merely an expansion of surveillance and curtailing of consumers’ privacy rights, and it has been mired in battles for years. One major complaint: the cyber information shared would go to federal agencies including the Defense Department and NSA, and the “purposes” allowed under the bill for the government to spread the data have been criticized as far too broad. The bill’s fiercest critic, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, has said he is not opposed to cybersecurity improvements, but the bill would sacrifice privacy for not enough gain.
World Trade Center responder program reauthorized
Comedian Jon Stewart hasn’t made many public appearances since his retirement from “The Daily Show.” But when he has, it’s often been to push for maintaining programs supporting those who responded to the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
He met with lawmakers and aides on Capitol Hill earlier this month to push for reauthorization of the programs and also returned to “The Daily Show” to make his case.
The effort seems to have paid off. The spending bill would renew the World Trade Center Health Program, which provides services to 9/11 responders, through 2090. The September 11 Victim Compensation Fund would be fully funded through 2021.
McCain fired up over missiles
Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, and Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, teamed up to allow the U.S. to buy rockets from Russia for satellite space launches. The language would benefit contractor United Launch Alliance, which is in a fight with Elon Musk’s SpaceX over future Air Force contracts.
The move has Arizona Sen. John McCain furious. He says Shelby and Durbin acted in bad faith and subverted his own Defense authorization bill from earlier this year.
The Arizona senator is also saying Shelby and Durbin are propping up Putin and his cronies by sending tens of millions of dollars to them by purchasing these rockets in order to benefit companies in their homes states at a time Russia is invading Ukraine and battling U.S.-backed rebels in Syria.
Dashing through the snow
Police protect Capitol Hill from a wide range of threats, including wintertime sledders.
Every year, snowstorms in Washington are inevitably followed by stories of police officers shooing away sledders – for reasons ranging from security to an alleged request from an anonymous lawmaker.
The spending bill calls on U.S. Capitol Police to allow sledding in one of Washington’s most picturesque settings.
“The Committee understands the need to maintain safety and order on the Capitol grounds and commends the Capitol Police for their efforts,” according to a report that accompanies the spending bill. “However, given the family-style neighborhood that the Capitol shares with the surrounding community, the Committee would instruct the Capitol Police to forebear enforcement of 2 U.S.C. 1963 (”An act to protect the public property, turf, and grass of the Capitol Grounds from injury”) and the Traffic Regulations for the United States Capitol Grounds when encountering snow sledders on the grounds.”
But don’t plan on any holiday sledding this year – the forecast for Washington on Christmas Day is sunny and 66 degrees.