Economy

The Good, The Bad, And The Strange: A Budget Deal Guide

CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI)

Crisis averted.

Lawmakers and the White House have agreed to a spending deal to avoid a shutdown and fund government operations over the coming year.

Congress will likely have to pass one more short-term spending bill to keep the government’s lights on past midnight tonight so the final package can move through the House and Senate. But with the release of a 2,009-page omnibus spending bill Wednesday morning, it’s all over but the voting.

For a variety of reasons, it is a better deal from a progressive perspective than it seemed likely to be just a few weeks ago. Here is a guide to the good, the bad, and the just-plain-strange elements of the final bipartisan spending deal of President Obama’s tenure.

THE GOOD

Negotiators abandoned a couple of high-profile ideas that progressives decried, including provisions to block Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. and a number of different assaults on Planned Parenthood funding. But those ideas were always dealbreakers. A couple of lower-profile policy riders that Republicans wanted seemed destined for passage, in similar fashion to the litany of Republican ideas that got attached to the last major budget deal.

But history didn’t repeat this year, for the most part. Nearly all those riders evaporated before the deal was struck. Lawmaker favors to the financial industry, fast food conglomerates, and the gun lobby all died in the negotiating process, and a measure aimed at helping victims of terrorism survived.

Republican priorities suffered clear defeat on two specific White House initiatives. The Obama administration set out months ago to bar financial advisers from scamming their own clients by imposing a “fiduciary duty” on them. The rule will require investment managers to make decisions that are best for their clients without regard to the fees and incentives the advisers themselves would collect. Republicans sought to block that consumer safeguard and killing the rule was long rumored to be a priority for the party in budget talks. The final deal does not include the language Republicans sought.

The GOP picked a similar skirmish over an administration action to boost fast food workers, and lost there too. As allegations of wage theft, retaliation against workers seeking union rights, and other labor law violations have mounted in the fast food industry over the past few years of worker activism, the administration has mostly stayed out of it. But the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) made one ruling that significantly improves the chances that workers might be able to force change in the industry.

Known as the “joint employer” ruling, the decision holds that franchising agreements between a company like McDonald’s and individual McDonald’s store owners do not indemnify McDonald’s, Inc. from liability for how those owners treat workers. Losing that liability shield may force McDonald’s and other similar brands to take responsibility for workplace conditions. McDonald’s in particular requires franchisees to use a computer system provided by headquarters to monitor each store’s labor costs in real time. That software is allegedly connected to wage theft in the company’s stores, where managers reportedly force workers to clock out but keep working when the computer says business is too slow to cover the moment-by-moment cost of paying those employees.

Conservatives wanted to block the NLRB’s ruling from being incorporated into how the board processes labor complaints. But that provision also disappeared from the final deal.

The good news isn’t all dodged bullets, either. It also includes a measure to ensure that victims of terrorist violence on American soil can get compensation for themselves and their families. The compensation fund means that non-citizens who survived terror attacks, like U.S. embassy support staffer George Mimba in Kenya, can collect damages. The bill “sends a clear message to the world that America will stand by those who stand by it,” Mimba told ThinkProgress’ Beenish Ahmed.

Despite spending more than $760,000 in political action committee money and more than $24 million in independent expenditures to elect a Republican majority in the 2014 elections, the National Rifle Association failed to win any new victories in the deal. Of five major priority items they highlighted in the House appropriations process, this omnibus includes just one — a year long ban on “Fast and Furious“-type gun walking stings. Gun violence prevention advocates were unable, however, to eliminate the “Dickey amendment,” a rider that prevents any CDC research that might “advocate or promote gun control.” Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA), who chairs the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, denounced the language’s continued inclusion as “outrageous.”

THE BAD

Democrats staved off some of the worst policy rider ideas in the deal. But they didn’t stop them all.

The biggest harmful provision in the budget deal will end a longstanding ban on exporting American crude oil. The ban dates back to the 1970s oil embargo, and ending it “is going to be bad for the climate, bad for the economy, and bad for consumers,” the Sierra Club’s Radha Adhar told ClimateProgress.

Oil exports have somewhat overshadowed other harmful riders in the bill pertaining to both civil liberties and campaign finance.

A pair of provisions in the legislation will stymie any hope of action in 2016 to bring transparency or limits to secret corporate political spending. Section 735 would block any attempt by the Securities and Exchange Commission to require companies that receive federal contracts to disclose their dark-money contributions to political organizations. Section 127 will prohibit the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from acting in 2016 to formalize proposed rules to reign in political groups that avoid disclosing their funding by masquerading as tax-exempt 501(c)(4) “social welfare” non-profits.

With campaign finance reform opponents in firm control of both chambers of Congress and total deadlock at the government agency tasked with enforcing the limited laws already on the books, this will ensure that the American public can know where only a fraction of the political money comes from. The pro-reform group Common Cause denounced the deal, as one that “keeps the government’s lights on in exchange for more secret money in politics.”

Also tucked into the deal is a bill known as the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), which gives the government even more flexibility to collect massive amounts of information on its citizens. Ostensibly aimed at beefing up cybersecurity, the measure vaporizes certain privacy protections to make it easier for private companies to hand over user information to the government and other companies. Normally, that information has to go through the Department of Homeland Security to get scrubbed of any personal identifying information before it gets widely distributed to other agencies. But the House’s proposal skips that step, clearing the way for direct information sharing with the NSA.

The bill also eases restrictions on how the government is allowed to use the data they collect. Despite the name of the legislation, agencies don’t have to limit their intel to cybersecurity, but can more vaguely use it to fight criminal activity. That could expand abuses like the Drug Enforcement Agency’s secret use of NSA intelligence, originally collected in the name of national security, to help prosecute criminal drug cases. The ACLU also points out that it could also be used to criminally prosecute whistleblowers like Edward Snowden under the Espionage Act.

The deal also cuts funding for the IRS enforcement division. That team has absorbed huge cuts over the past three years. Today’s deal cuts another $25 million from last year’s enforcement budget, leaving the 2016 budget for auditing returns and pursuing crooks almost half a billion dollars below what it was in 2013. Cutting enforcement doesn’t save money, of course, because every dollar the IRS spends on enforcement yields several dollars in revenue that wouldn’t have been collected otherwise.

THE STRANGE

In the fall, lawmakers moved to allow Veterans Administration doctors to prescribe marijuana to veterans in states where the drug is legal for medicinal use. Cannabis’ capacity for relieving pain and anxiety make it a potentially useful treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, among many other ailments.

But soldiers won’t have access to the drug through VA doctors even if their state laws say medical pot is kosher. The measure passed the Senate but disappeared from the omnibus before it was finalized.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has long been a target for Republicans who believe they can force Democrats to agree to policies they oppose by attaching them to must-pass budget bills. Reports had it that the CFPB might lose its budget independence or have some of its specific attempts to protect consumers blocked by provisions of Wednesday’s deal.

Instead, all the agency’s opponents managed to conjure is a pair of odd, mostly cosmetic tweaks to the CFPB’s operations.

The first subjects the agency to a public-recordkeeping law called the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Any working groups or panels the agency sets up or participates in with other executive branch staffers will now have to operate publicly and publish records of their meetings and work. The measure does nothing to curb what those groups can do or discuss, but moves their deliberations into the public eye.

The second CFPB rider is sillier. The agency gets its money from the Federal Reserve rather than Congress. It was designed that way to prevent politicians from meddling in the bureau’s affairs on behalf of the very business interests from which consumers need protection.

Having failed to crush that structural independence, Republicans settled for ordering the CFPB to give lawmakers a heads-up each time it makes a funding request to the Fed. The rider does nothing substantive, but ensures the agency’s opponents will know exactly when to go on Fox News or call in the C-SPAN cameras to yell about the supposedly-unaccountable agency that’s won back over $10 billion for wronged consumers in just half a decade.