Deep in the fine print of the two-year budget deal in Congress

Deep in the fine print of the two-year budget deal in Congress 

Posted: 2:20 pm Thursday, February 8th, 2018

By Jamie Dupree

As the Congress moved to approve a stopgap funding plan to avoid a government shutdown, and a two-year budget agreement worked out by leaders of both parties, lawmakers were still digging into the details of that budget deal, which approves close to $400 billion in new spending over the next two years, the first significant increase since the Obama Stimulus law in 2009, as Republicans celebrated more money for the military, and Democrats highlighted more money for domestic programs.

“With today’s vote, we’re finally going to get the military the budget they need,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, as Republicans celebrated $165 billion in new military funds over the next two years.

“That is by far the biggest achievement in this bill,” Ryan added.

But as with any bill of this size – 652 pages – there was a lot more than the headlines on Congressional press releases.

Here’s some of the details in the fine print:

1. What’s a good summary of this bill? There will be a double digit increase in spending this year and next year in the budget, for both the military and non-defense programs. The $165 billion for defense and the $131 billion for non-defense totals to $296 billion over two years. There is also $89 billion in disaster relief. $20 billion will be added for new roads and bridges. The tax provisions will cost just over $17 billion. Most of the spending details still have to be worked out, so you won’t see a breakdown of those on the House or Senate floor until mid-to-late March, when the Congress will try to finish work on the 2018 budget, months behind schedule.

2. For Republicans, it’s all about the Pentagon. From the White House and Capitol Hill, the GOP focus in this budget deal is on the increases for military spending. Not only does the base budget for the Pentagon go up by $165 billion, but even more will be added via “Overseas Contingency Operations,” bringing the Pentagon budget to $700 billion in 2018, and $716 billion in 2019. In order to get that level of funding, and do away with the “sequester,” GOP leaders had to allow for a big increase in domestic spending as well. But it was the military angle that was hammered home by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

3. For Democrats, it’s all about non-defense spending.While the Republicans talk about the military spending increase, Democrats are focusing on the extra $131 billion going to domestic programs under this agreement. $6 billion for the opioid epidemic. $2 billion more to the National Institutes of Health for advanced medical research efforts. It funds Community Health Centers for two years. Extends the Children’s Health Insurance Program for another four years. “It will help America in so many ways,” said Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), whose office used this graphic on Twitter about the deal. It’s not hard to tell what each side was emphasizing.

4. $89.3 billion in delayed disaster relief. The budget deal finally frees up a large package of disaster aid for those hit by hurricanes in 2017, as well as money to deal with recent wildfires in California. Lawmakers from Texas and Florida have been making noise for months about the need for more disaster aid – the House approved a plan just before Christmas, but the Senate had not taken any action on that legislation. This bill will also help those hit in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as it will bring the total amount of money spent on disasters in 2017-2018 to over $140 billion – and many say that tab will grow even more in the months ahead.

5. Another piece of the Obama health law gone. It didn’t get much fanfare, but the budget deal does away with Medicare’s “Independent Payment Advisory Board.” This was what some Republicans called “death panels” back during the debate over the Obama health law in 2009-2010. The group would meet if Medicare’s growth rate went over a certain level, triggering the need for cuts. So, critics said it would mean decisions on who got care and who did not. There were Democrats who didn’t like the IPAB – but this was a check mark on the GOP side for sure in this budget agreement.

6. Two new special committees in Congress. Unless you’re a legislative nerd like me, this one isn’t getting much attention – but the budget deal would set up two new special committees in the House and Senate, to look at two separate matters – pensions and the budget process in Congress. On pensions, as more companies stop paying for pension plans, the cost to the government is going up to help bail out retirees who had been counting on that money. As for the budget process – this bill is a pretty good example that things aren’t working, as the budget work for 2017 was supposed to be done by September 30 – of LAST year. As I have reported many times, since the budget process was reworked in 1974, Congress has finished its spending work on time only in 1976, 1988, 1994 and 1996. That’s right. Four times in over 40 years.

7. Some very familiar budget gimmicks. I’ve seen this too many times. Yes, there are provisions in this budget deal which would save money. But it won’t happen for a number of years – which means it probably won’t happen. If you find the two section labeled “Offsets,” there are a number of provisions that save money. Customs user fees would be added in – 2026. $1.64 billion in Aviation Security Service fees in – 2026. New immigration fees in – 2027. You get the point. They are legitimate items in the “ten year budget window” for Congress, but it’s not like the money is coming in to offset new spending in 2018 or 2019 under this agreement. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) told reporters that most of the offsets in the bill “aren’t particularly real.”

8. The debt limit will increase by (fill in the blank). This two-year budget deal includes language which will ‘suspend’ the nation’s debt ceiling temporarily, until March 1, 2019. Sometimes the Congress picks a number by which to raise the debt ceiling. Sometimes the Congress just allows it to go up until a certain date. This time, it’s anyone’s guess as to how much the debt will go up over the next 13 months. Maybe we should have a pool in the Press Gallery.

9. More life for the tax extenders. About every year or two, there is a push to renew a series of temporary tax breaks, known as the “tax extenders.” It seemed like that wasn’t going to happen, and then, this budget deal appeared, and they were added in. The extension of the 7-year recovery period for motorsports entertainment complexes is a familiar one, along with a tax break for race horses, and special expensing rules for certain film, TV and live theatrical productions. This is not a full list below, but you will notice that all of these breaks are for 2017 – last year. A full breakdown of all the tax provisions is available from the Joint Committee on Taxation.

10. And there were some late edits to the bill. What is the old saying? You don’t want to watch sausage or legislation being made. We’ve had examples of late adds in recent bills, and here’s another one that I stumbled on. All I can say is that most people probably didn’t read the bill, because I haven’t seen many people talking about this handwritten addition. It was only on page 146 – but, remember, not many people read the actual bills.

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