What Did Congress Sneak Into the Last-Minute Spending Deal?

John Boehner
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) speaks to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington July 10, 2014. Joshua Roberts/Reuters

To shut down the government or not shut it down?

Republicans and Democrats have until 11:59 p.m. to pass a $1.1 trillion spending bill to fund the government through September of next year and avoid a government shutdown. As of Thursday morning, the deal is expected to pass both houses of Congress.

But it's not as simple as that.

Lawmakers have loaded up the so-called "cromnibus"—the continuing resolution and omnibus bill—with policy riders, making some Democrats balk at the last second. The question heading into Thursday is whether the bill will pull together enough Democrats and Republicans for passage?

Policy riders allow Republicans to use the last-minute budget crunch to pass bills they were unable to pass through the normal legislative process. In negotiations, Democrats kept many riders out of the final bill and many of the GOP-backed riders also have support from some Democrats. Still, the GOP can also use these riders to lure their caucus' most conservative members who are unhappy that the bill doesn't take aim at President Obama's recent executive action on immigration (although it does limit Department of Homeland Security funding to just three months, setting up a battle over immigration in the new year).

If the cromnibus doesn't get enough votes to pass, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has signaled he is ready with a short-term spending bill to avoid a shutdown and push the work of funding the government into next year.

"I expect this bill will receive bipartisan support and pass," Boehner told reporters at a press conference Thursday.

So what are the poison pills?

The "Wall Street Giveaway"

Republicans have inserted a rider that would repeal a key provision of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. The so-called "push-out rule" provision requires banks to move their riskiest derivatives trades to non-bank entities not eligible for a federal bailout. In other words, taxpayer dollars won't bail out banks' riskiest dealings if the economy tanks. Banks have wanted to undo this portion of the law for a while—as Mother Jones reported, the language was originally written by CitiGroup lobbyists and passed the House last year before stalling in the Senate.

"This provision, originally written by lobbyists, has no place in a must-pass spending bill," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said in a statement on the spending bill.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, the most influential anti-Wall Street Democrat, tried to rally fellow Democrats against the "Wall Street giveaway" Wednesday. "This Congress can't be here to say what can we do to improve the profitability of a half-dozen large institutions and shove all the risk off to the American people again," she said Wednesday. "This Congress has to stand for a little more safety and security in our financial system."

So the question is how many other Democrats feel the same way?

Even More Money in Politics

Lawmakers are using the cromnibus to chip away at campaign finance rules. According to The New York Times, the rider would increase the amount of money rich donors could give to national party committees from a current maximum of $97,200 per year to over $777,000.

Outside money has flooded into politics since the 2010 Citizens United decision opened the door to unlimited third-party giving. But the new money went disproportionately to super PACs and nonprofits while party-giving limits remained intact. By raising the cap for donations to parties, even some liberals hope this policy rider will help tilt the balance of power back toward parties and away from more politically extreme super PACs. But campaign finance reform advocates are unhappy. "If this passes it will be the most corrupting campaign finance provisions ever enacted in the history of the country," campaign finance reform advocate Fred Wertheimer told CNN.

Gutting EPA and IRS

The Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency carry out policies loathed by Republicans: The IRS administers Obamacare tax subsidies and plans to issue new campaign finance regulations while the EPA is carrying out President Obama's climate change agenda. So Republicans are cutting funding to these agencies to try to cripple these efforts.

"With seemingly little pushback from Democrats, the GOP this week secured $350 million in IRS budget cuts into the 'cromnibus,' just weeks before one of the toughest tax seasons starts," Politico reported. "Those new cuts come atop more than a $1 billion reduction to the IRS budget since 2010, which has forced the tax-collecting agency to shed 13,000 employees while it serves an additional 7 million taxpayers, according to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen."

The EPA, which not only writes pollution regulations but also does such critical work as cleaning up toxic waste sites, will be similarly underfunded, down $60 million from the last fiscal year. According to The Washington Post, the agency has lost $2.2 billion or 21 percent of its funding since 2010 and "will have to reduce its staffing to the lowest levels since 1989."

Hurting Endangered Species

The spending deal blocks the Department of the Interior from giving endangered species protections to two kinds of sage grouse who happen to inhabit prime land for oil and natural gas development.

"With this fight, the sage grouse has joined a roster of creatures like the spotted owl, the snail darter and the Delta smelt in becoming flash points for Beltway collisions between conservation and business interests," Politico reported.

Unfortunately for the sage grouse, no lawmakers are likely to vote down the deal on their behalf.

Blocking Legal Weed in D.C.

In November, voters in the District of Columbia voted overwhelmingly to legalize marijuana. But in D.C., Congress gets the last say. House Republicans are using the spending bill to block full legalization and upend voters' will. The spending deal prohibits D.C. city government from setting up a regulatory framework for the sale or taxation of the drug. Possession of small amounts of marijuana, however, will likely be legal.