Blog: Much Bad Policy Lurking in the Final Spending Bill for FY 2015, Known as the “Cromnibus”

Carolyn Burstein
Dec 19, 2014

The “Cromnibus” – a hybrid of a Continuing Resolution (CR), funding the Department of Homeland Security until the end of February 2015 (giving those opposed to the president’s executive order on immigration a chance to work their budgetary legerdemain), and 11 omnibus bills for the remainder of the government – is riddled with policy riders that should have been thoroughly debated openly and voted up or down during congressional sessions in FY 2014. About the only good thing that can be said about cobbling together all the annual bills that fund federal agencies and disallowing adequate debate on the policy riders is that it beats a government shutdown. As the December 15 issue of The Washington Post notes: “Some [of the policy riders] have been thoroughly debated in committees, and others have barely been considered.”

At the outset, let me clarify that not all policy riders slipped into the final “cromnibus” are objectionable. But this blog will focus on those that should have been voted down during earlier congressional sessions.

For those policy considerations that were introduced earlier in the fiscal year, a combination of politics and policy differences delayed their earlier passage. We are not as concerned with all the bad policy riders or with the so-called “Cruz-Lee rebellion” that ultimately allowed the Senate to approve a final group of Obama nominees for government posts, as we are about several policy riders that are either obstacles to those struggling to provide for their families, or continue to keep the economy out of kilter and balanced toward the more fortunate among us. In still other cases, for example, the School Lunch Program and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program, we have wholeheartedly supported improved nutrition, which is antithetical to what ultimately was passed.

Among the many policy riders that are part of the “Cromnibus” signed by President Obama on December 16 are the following issues we do not support:

  • The wealthiest people in the country will be able to donate up to $1.5 million (or $3m if they are a married couple) in campaign contributions to political parties within every two-year election cycle, spelling the death knell for the McCain-Feingold law’s ban on large party donations enacted to end the “soft-money” corruption of Watergate. The national parties were able to win this policy rider partially because they had become the underdogs, based on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010, which allowed super PACs and politically active nonprofits to displace the national parties as major power brokers in national politics. Undoubtedly, some members of Congress supported this policy based on the fact that donors would be subject to disclosure rules that would therefore increase transparency for campaign contributions. (Those who benefitted from the Citizens United decision do not report the identity of donors, thus the appellation “dark money.”)
  • A revision of the Dodd-Frank 2010 law that allows banks to use their customers’ federally-guaranteed deposits to buy credit default swaps – those risky derivative deals that partially led to the Great Recession of 2008 – which places taxpayers back in the catbird seat to bail out Wall Street again. As the New York Times suggests in its editorial on December 11, 2014, “Passage of this rider would also signal open season on the rest of the Dodd-Frank reforms when Republicans take control of both houses next year.” It is true that Democrats protected several other provisions of Dodd-Frank that came under attack, but gave in on this provision when Republicans offered to increase funding for the regulatory enforcement division of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). For this reason alone, a Washington Post editorial on December 16, 2014 placed the Dodd-Frank policy rider in the “category of regrettable, not cataclysmic,” and accounts for the White House’s “complaints” about the rider, but ultimately its acquiescence and willingness to sign the whole spending bill.
  • The Dodd-Frank reforms will not be the only target for the next Congress; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also endured extensive budget cuts in the lame duck session in addition to ensuring that a Bush-era rule would continue to allow the mountaintop mining industry to dump toxic waste into Appalachian streams. In the next Congress it will be interesting to see how hard legislators defend the environmental regulations recently issued in September by the EPA reducing the amount of carbon emissions from power plants.
  • The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has suffered the harshest cuts of 2015 – almost $346m – which continues its budgetary decline over the past several years, thus weakening its ability to audit the tax returns of the very wealthy who have many protectors among congressional groups.
  • Pell Grants – the largest federal grant program for low-income undergraduate students – was cut by $303m. Even though the maximum annual award was increased for the 2015-16 academic year, fewer students will benefit from the government program. The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) points out that the program is projected to face a significant shortfall in FY 2016 and beyond. In the past when shortfalls have occurred, they have caused problems for students. CLASP claims that it is shortsighted to cut Pell Grants now instead of saving the surplus for future leaner years, and also sets a dangerous precedent for the program.
  • The Department of Agriculture was also the recipient of several policy riders. Among the negative ones, in our view, are provisions that prohibit the federal government from requiring less salt in the School Lunch Program and allow schools to obtain exemptions from all whole-grain requirements. Michelle Obama, among others, fought hard for tougher nutrition standards, especially relating to sodium. Watering down the revised nutrition standards that were thoroughly debated in the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act of 2010, is uncalled for and a victory for the food industry, whose lobbyists were determined to maintain the profitable status quo. The WIC program also suffered the ignominy of having tougher nutrition standards reversed when it allowed those who qualify for WIC to purchase white potatoes (think French fries) with their government food money.

These are some of the major policy riders that we at NETWORK oppose because they all leave unjust policies in place or produce barriers that impede fairness, such as the non-defense discretionary sequestration spending cuts that have wreaked havoc for those who lack basic living standards. We will continue to push for changes to these and other policies in the 114th Congress to uphold the common good and the dignity of all.

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