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.”
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.
The anonymity of the special interest add-ons are especially pronounced in the 2015 spending bill, largely because of the secretive way in which it was crafted.
“Other than a congressman bragging about this or that project in a press release, there’s very little to go on as far as who sponsored these things,” Kennedy said.
Earmarks benefiting a specific area can narrow the field, of course, as can bills filed in the past by members that failed but resurfaced in the form of earmarks.
“That gives you an idea, but even then, unless they come out and say so, it’s hard to know for sure,” Kennedy said.
Did He Or Didn’t He?
Rep. Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat, is a telling example of a legislator whose ties with a particular industry, in this case financial services, makes him a prime suspect in the insertion of a specific earmark, but who also can’t be linked directly to it, budget watchers say.
“[T]here are things in this agreement that I find objectionable, including its provisions that weaken our campaign finance regulations and roll back Clean Water Act protections,” Himes, who voted for the measure, said in a statement. “[But] at the end of the day, I believe the good in this bill outweighs the aspects I disagree with.”
Notably missing from what Himes deems “objectionable” is the watering down of the Dodd-Frank legislation, which was designed to keep a closer eye on Wall Street and help prevent a repeat of 2008’s financial meltdown. Almost every other Democrat, including those who voted for the bill, mentioned the Dodd-Frank measure as one of the more odious parts of the spending bill.
Himes could not be reached for comment and it’s not known if he was one of those behind the provision to ease Dodd-Frank. The provision makes it easier for banks to use taxpayer-backed funds for potentially risky investments. What is known, however, is that Himes has long been cozy with Wall Street. He’s a former Goldman Sachs investment banker; his top campaign contributor is none other than, that’s right, Goldman Sachs, which gave him $54,000 in the most recent election cycle. Two other financial services firms are among his top five contributors, including J.P. Morgan, whose CEO, Jamie Dimon, actively pressed Democratic legislators to pass the bill. All told, securities and investment firms gave Himes nearly $500,000 in the last cycle alone.
The cromnibus passed 219-206 in the House and 56-40 in the Senate, with plenty of members of both parties voting to scrub the bill.
Its most controversial aspects — the easing of Dodd-Frank and a tenfold increase in allowable political donations to parties — were the main reasons many Democrats voted against the measure. Conservative Republicans, meanwhile, were upset over the size and scope of the bill, with many calling it the essence of “big government.” The lack of transparency, and the fact that it fully funds Obamacare and Obama’s immigration order (for now, at least), also dismayed members of the GOP.
Between the House and the Senate, 85 Republicans, 160 Democrats, and 1 independent voted against the measure.
That group included outgoing Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter.
She was one of just a handful of legislators who were ousted in November to vote against the bill.
“Congress had to keep the government open, but it should have been done like this, with all these provisions that have nothing to do with spending,” she said in an interview, referring specifically to the weakening of Dodd-Frank and the increase in political contribution limits. “Putting taxpayers on the hook for the recklessness of Wall Street and gutting these campaign finance laws is just not acceptable. That’s why I voted no.”