Really Fine Print of Cromnibus Included Billions for Special Interests

If you want to get to the bottom of things, a wise man once said, well then, start at the bottom of things. Sound advice for most anything life can throw at you, including, it would seem, federal spending bills.

Take Page 1,602, for instance, of the so-called “cromnibus” measure passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama before leaving for his holiday break in Hawaii. It sits near the bottom of the 3-foot-tall, $1.1 trillion spending package for the 2015 fiscal year. It’s the measure’s penultimate page, in fact — and one critics say epitomizes all that is wrong with government and the political machine that runs it: wasteful spending, cronyism, bureaucratic obfuscation, undue influence of special interests, and a shameless lack of transparency and due diligence.

“See how far you get before your eyes glaze over,” said Wes Parker of Fairfax, Va., an election law attorney who does pro bono work with several government watchdog groups.

Here is the pertinent text from Page 1,602:

“Modification of treatment of certain health organizations:

In general — Paragraph (5) of section 833(c) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 is amended — (1) by striking ‘this section’ and inserting ‘paragraphs (2) and (3) of subsection (a)’, and (2) by inserting ‘and for activities that improve health care quality’ after 'clinical services.'”

“Any idea?” Parker asked with a knowing smile. “Yeah. Me neither.”

Ride(r) On!

For the record, the amendment, boiled down to its simplest form, amounts to a tax break for a single entity: health insurer Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

“Not that you’d ever know that from reading the amendment,” Parker says. “But this is the way government works now. This is how Congress gets things done. Put everything into one pot, make it as a vague as possible — and push it through at the last minute.”

Indeed, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield measure is just one of hundreds of policy riders, amendments and earmarks stuffed into the cromnibus, as it’s become known. The name is an amalgamation of the measure’s two components: a continuing resolution, or CR, and omnibus, an all-encompassing spending bill.

The bill, negotiated by members of both parties behind closed doors, was released less than 72 hours before the House had to vote on it to avoid a government shutdown. The tight deadline left little time for debate, angering members of both parties and open-government advocates.

The Senate signed off on the measure two days later and the president followed suit. The last-minute nature of the measure, along with the billions in stocking stuffers for special interests, has rankled a wide cross-section of the political spectrum. Taxpayer-rights groups, government watchdogs, conservatives and liberals all found plenty to be outraged at in the gargantuan bill. The measure funds 11 of the 12 appropriations bills through September. The Department of Homeland Security will get only enough money to operate through February. That will give the new, Republican-led Congress, which will be sworn in next month, leverage to try to thwart Obama’s immigration order.

‘Prince Of Pork’

Supporters of the bill say no earmarks, or so-called “pork” projects, are in the bill, in keeping with the 2011 congressional ban on such unrelated add-ins. Earmarks are the name for funding amendments, often for projects benefiting special interests, political donors, and local supporters that legislators slip into larger bills at the last minute.

“The 11 Appropriations bills in this package reflect specific, thoughtful, line-by-line decisions to target funds to critical programs, make reductions to lower-priority areas, and wisely invest the taxpayers’ hard-earned money,” Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said in a statement.

Rogers, dubbed the “prince of pork” by government watchdog groups for steering lucrative — and often unnecessary or wasteful, critics say — provisions to his home district, says the package “makes the most” of taxpayer money.

Rep. Joe Garcia, a Florida Democrat who lost in November and one of the few outgoing representatives to vote against the measure, says that’s just not true.

“Weakening regulations and increasing the influence of money in politics have no place in a spending bill,” Garcia said.

Sean Kennedy of Citizens Against Taxpayer Waste, a watchdog group, says the claim that no earmarks exist in the cromnibus is thin, and based solely on a flimsy definition of the term.

“They say there have been no earmarks since 2011, but under our definition, the cost of earmarks has grown steadily higher each year,” said Kennedy.

What’s worse, the earmarks have become increasingly “anonymous,” as Kennedy puts it. Ironically, the earmarks “ban” created that loophole. Under Congress’s version of earmarks, legislators had to attach to the rider both their name and the specific city, county or region benefiting from it. Given that earmarks have officially been done away with, that condition is no longer in effect.