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$1.3 trillion spending bill: From PBS to Asian carp, and Secret Service to restaurants

The Washington Post
March 24. 2018 9:19PM
Aides carry a signing table with Congress' $1.3 trillion spending bill during a signing ceremony held by U.S. President Donald Trump in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., March 23, 2018. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

WASHINGTON - Congress cleared a sweeping $1.3 trillion spending bill late last week that doles out enormous increases to military and domestic programs alike, as Republicans and Democrats joined to block most of President Donald Trump's proposed budget cuts and to place obstacles in the way of his immigration agenda.

The bill abandons GOP claims of fiscal discipline in a stark reversal of the promises many Republicans ran on in capturing control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 as they railed against what they described as a profligate President Barack Obama.

House GOP leaders tossed aside their own rules and past complaints about Democrats to rush the legislation through the House ahead of a Friday night government shutdown deadline. Lawmakers of both parties seethed, saying they had scant time to read the mammoth bill, which was released less than 17 hours before they voted.

President Donald Trump signed the bill Friday afternoon in the "name of national security" after a brief veto threat was made, as usual, via Twitter.

The legislation funds the federal government for the remainder of the 2018 budget year, through Sept. 30, directing $700 billion toward the military and $591 billion to domestic agencies. The military spending is a $66 billion increase over the 2017 level, and the nondefense spending is $52 billion more than last year.

The spending bill is widely expected to be the last major legislation that Congress will pass before the November midterm elections. Here are some highlights:

Border wall: The bill provides $1.6 billion for barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, but with some serious strings attached. Of the total, $251 million is earmarked specifically for "secondary fencing" near San Diego, where fencing is already in place; $445 million is for no more than 25 miles of "levee fencing"; $196 million is for "primary pedestrian fencing" in the Rio Grande Valley; $445 million is for the replacement of existing fencing in that area; and the rest is for planning, design and technology - not for wall construction. The biggest catch is this: The barriers authorized to be built under the act must be "operationally effective designs" already deployed as of last March, meaning none of President Donald Trump's "big, beautiful wall" prototypes can be built.

Immigration enforcement: The bill bumps up funding for both U.S. Customs and Border Protection and for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement - delivering increases sought by the Trump administration. But there are significant restrictions on how that new money can be spent. Democrats pushed for, and won, limitations on hiring new ICE interior enforcement agents and on the number of undocumented immigrants the agency can detain.

Infrastructure: Numerous transportation programs get funding increases in the bill, but the debate leading up to its release focused on one megaproject: The Gateway program, aimed at improving rail access to and from Manhattan on Amtrak and New Jersey Transit. Trump made it a signature fight, largely to punish Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and other Democratic backers of the project who have held up other Trump initiatives. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told Congress this month that the project simply wasn't ready for prime time. The project is not mentioned in the bill, and Republican aides say that they turned back efforts to essentially earmark federal funding for the project. But Democrats say that the project is still eligible for as much as $541 million in funding this fiscal year through accounts that Chao does not control. The project might also still qualify for other pools of money, though it will have to compete with other projects on an equal playing field.

Health care: Left out of the bill was a health-care measure sought by GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee that would have allowed states to establish high-risk pools to help cover costly insurance claims while restoring certain payments to insurers under the Affordable Care Act. Trump, who ended the "cost-sharing reduction" payments in the fall, supported the Collins-Alexander language. But Democrats opposed it because they claimed it included language expanding the existing prohibition on federal funding for abortions.

Guns: The bill includes the Fix NICS Act, bipartisan legislation aimed at improving the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is used to screen U.S. gun buyers. It provides for incentives and penalties to encourage federal agencies and states to send records to the federal database in an effort to prevent the type of oversight that preceded last year's church massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Democrats pushed for more aggressive gun laws, including universal background checks, but only won a minor concession: Language in the report accompanying the bill, clarifying that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can, in fact, conduct research into gun violence. A long-standing rider known as the Dickey Amendment, which states that no CDC funds "may be used to advocate or promote gun control," has been interpreted in the past to bar such research. The amendment itself remains.

Secret Service: The agency responsible for protecting the President and his family gets $2.007 billion, including $9.9 million for overtime worked without pay in 2017 and $14 million to construct a taller and stronger fence around the White House. In a win for congressional Democrats concerned about Secret Service agents protecting Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump on overseas business trips, the bill includes language requiring an annual report on travel costs for people protected by the service - including the adult children of presidents.

Restaurant tips: In December, the Labor Department proposed a rule that would allow employers such as restaurant owners to "pool" their employees' tips and redistribute them as they saw fit - including, potentially, to themselves. That generated a bipartisan outcry, and the bill spells out explicitly in law that tip pooling is not permitted: "An employer may not keep tips received by its employees for any purposes, including allowing managers or supervisors to keep any portion of employees' tips, regardless of whether or not the employer takes a tip credit."

FBI: The spending bill grants the agency $9.03 billion for salaries and expenses, a $263 million jump over the last fiscal year and $307 million more than the Trump administration requested. The bill does not include any funding for the construction of a new FBI headquarters, a win for Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. According to aides familiar with the move, the senator sought to block new construction funding in response to the administration's plans to keep the FBI headquarters in downtown Washington instead of moving it to suburban Virginia or Maryland.

Asian carp: The invasive species has wreaked havoc in the Great Lakes region, and lawmakers from states bordering the lakes touted language that forces the Army Corps of Engineers to keep working on ensuring that vessels in the Illinois River don't carry the carp across an electric field erected to keep them out of the lakes.

Arts: Federal funding for the arts goes up, despite GOP attempts to slash it. The National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities will see funding climb to $152.8 million each, a $3 million increase over the last fiscal year. Trump proposed eliminating the endowments. The National Gallery of Art gets $165.9 million, a $1.04 million jump in funding. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will receive $40.5 million, which is $4 million more than the last fiscal year.

Public broadcasting: Big Bird, "Antiques Roadshow" and "Masterpiece Theatre" can play on as lawmakers agreed not to cut funding for the nation's public television and radio networks. Government funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting will remain at $465 million - the same level as past years. PBS and NPR draw most of their funding directly from member stations and viewers.

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