Second House ‘Minibus,’ With $1 Trillion Onboard, Careens Off Road Into a Fiscal, Policy Wreck

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The House of Representatives will likely vote later this week on H.R. 7617, a 1,165-page behemoth that would spend more than $1 trillion in taxpayers’ money and put a raft of troubling policies into place.

The bill is what’s called a “minibus,” one that would fund the majority of federal government activity, including the departments of Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor, Transportation, and Treasury.

There’s a chance that the Homeland Security portion will be removed due to internal debate among House Democrats.

This is the second such package put forward for fiscal year 2021. On July 24, the House passed H.R. 7608, a 689-page spending bill on a party-line vote featuring bipartisan opposition.

Any legislation of such length and that covers so many things will have room for improvement. But H.R. 7617 consistently moves in the wrong direction on a variety of fronts, including fiscal responsibility, national security, the rule of law, protecting the unborn, and defending freedom of conscience.

Heritage Foundation experts have identified a number of policy concerns that the House should address.

Breaks and Dodges Spending Limits

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 dramatically increased spending levels through 2021. This should have provided congressional appropriators with more than enough money to cover both national priorities and pet programs.

Unfortunately, many legislators are seeking to leverage the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to spend even more and to add to a national debt that’s already more than $200,000 per household.

While the first appropriations package contained $37 billion in “emergency” measures, this package adds a whopping $207 billion of such spending.

When we consider what ought to qualify for emergency spending designations, unusual circumstances such as natural disasters, wars, and pandemics top the list. Congress has expanded and abused those budgetary exceptions over time, yet this bill would set a new low.

Examples of inappropriate “emergency” spending in H.R. 7617 include:

  • $17 billion for Army Corps of Engineers work on water infrastructure projects such as dams. This has nothing to do with the pandemic and would continue the “rob Peter to pay Paul” practice of subsidizing certain states and localities at the expense of others.
  • $23.5 billion for the Department of Energy, most of which would go toward “green” initiatives. This would be yet another attempt to jump-start the Green New Deal, which seeks to transform the economy by giving even more power and control to bureaucrats and politicians.
  • $61 billion in subsidies for expanding broadband internet service, primarily to rural areas. This is currently messaged as necessary to help children with remote learning as a result of school building closures. In reality, it would be a substantial subsidy to a rapidly shrinking number of households, and deployment would take far too long to help districts during the upcoming school year.
  • $26 billion for transportation infrastructure, which is promoted as an economic recovery measure. There are gaping holes in this plan. Infrastructure spending is ineffective as economic stimulus, since it’s slow-moving and tends to shift rather than create jobs. Worse, the spending is weighted toward mass transit, which represents a tiny portion of the nation’s transportation use. That means the spending would provide minimal value.
  • $49 billion for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which would roughly double its spending. Nothing that this agency does has any meaningful relationship to addressing the pandemic, and the extra spending would primarily serve to subsidize people who choose to live in urban areas.

Billions in additional emergency funds are allocated to Health and Human Services to deal with current and future pandemic response. While much of this is justified because of COVID-19, forward-looking activity should be done through prioritizing regular spending, rather than adding to the debt.

Even without the emergency measures, the bill would still evade budget rules to the tune of $15 billion with a tired gimmick known as Changes in Mandatory Programs. That occurs when Congress “cuts” programs such as the Crime Victims Fund and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Those funds have unspent balances, and the fake “cuts” are used to cover for real spending increases elsewhere.

Instead of pretending that there are no consequences to adding to the national debt, legislators should only utilize emergency spending for legitimate and urgent needs, and learn to live within spending limits.

Shortchanges National Defense

The bill appropriates $694.6 billion in discretionary funds for the Department of Defense, $3.7 billion below the president’s budget request and the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019.

The appropriators took an exceedingly partisan approach to their defense bill, in clear opposition to laudable bipartisanship of the Armed Services authorizers in both the Senate and the House.

At a time when the challenges to American national security are proliferating and becoming more aggressive, it’s more important than ever for Congress to show bipartisan support for a strong national defense.

The bill repeals the 2001 authorization for use of military force, which—unless fixed—would leave current operations stranded abroad without any legal basis.

The appropriators did increase the number of F-35s that the Pentagon will buy in the coming year. That will move the program forward at a faster pace and ensure that the Air Force modernizes its arsenal faster and with the most dominant and cost-effective fighter available.

All in all, the defense portion of the appropriations bill will require substantial work with the Senate to overcome its problems.

Weakens Nuclear Deterrence

The House energy and water bill also contains provisions of concern related to the National Nuclear Security Administration.

First, the bill would not provide the requested funding for the W93 nuclear warhead program. The W93 warhead will replace existing nuclear warheads on the Navy’s nuclear submarines once they begin to age out in the 2030s.

The commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, Adm. Charles Richard, has made it clear that work on the W93 must “begin immediately” to avoid future risk to the sea leg of the U.S. strategic deterrent.

Both the defense and energy and water bills prohibit the use of funds to conduct, or prepare to conduct, yield-producing nuclear tests. While the United States operates under a testing moratorium, it maintains nuclear test readiness should the need arise to conduct a nuclear test, a goal that President Bill Clinton established and every president since has endorsed.

This misguided prohibition would impinge on our nation’s ability to respond to an emergency requiring a nuclear test to ensure the functionality of our aging nuclear arsenal.

Finally, the bill would prohibit the use of funds to increase the role of the Nuclear Weapons Council in crafting the NNSA’s budget. The council, composed of defense officials and the NNSA administrator, plays the crucial role of ensuring alignment of nuclear weapons priorities between the Energy Department and its customer, the Defense Department.

Placing a blanket prohibition on giving the Defense Department—through the Nuclear Weapons Council—greater say in a process that exists only to serve military requirements would be irresponsible.

Grows Wasteful Spending at the Justice Department

The Justice Department does not need an increase in its budget of $33.2 billion. That is far more than is required for it to carry out its mission. 

As an example, there’s an increase of $100 million for the Civil Rights Division to conduct what are called “pattern and practice” investigations of wrongdoing by law enforcement agencies. However, the Special Litigation Section inside the Civil Rights Division that conducts those investigations does not currently lack for resources or personnel. 

In fact, during the Obama administration, this section abused its authority to go after local law enforcement agencies to force them to implement radical, progressive “social justice” policies that had nothing to do with effective policing and fair law enforcement. 

The proposed increase in funding is simply a recipe for federal interference in local law enforcement.

The same thing is true for the increase in appropriations for the Community Relations Service, one of the most ineffective offices within the Justice Department. 

Rather than accomplishing its mission of trying to calm down local communities in the midst of law enforcement incidents, during the Obama administration, Community Relations Service staffers actually went into some local communities like Ferguson, Missouri, to instigate and help organize social unrest.

The bill is filled with similar huge funding increases in various other Justice Department programs, offices, and divisions that have not been justified.

Perpetuates Government Intervention in Energy Markets

The House bill generally rejects measures to reduce the size and scope of government and opts for big spending at a time when Congress should be making serious efforts to make smart cuts.

The House proposal consistently maintains or increases spending on Department of Energy programs, where the president’s budget largely reflected measures proposed to reduce or eliminate programs at the Energy Department that are better left to the private sector, academia, and states.

For example, excluding Office of Science spending, the House bill proposes to spend a little more than $5 billion to advance energy technologies to combat climate change. On top of that, the appropriators want to quadruple down on taxpayer spending on government-defined clean energy with an additional $20.3 billion in emergency spending. 

Passing such a massive spending increase would be a raw deal for taxpayers and the future of competitive energy markets.

Through its offices of applied science and loan programs, the Energy Department has gone far beyond basic research to spend taxpayer dollars to commercialize specific energy technologies for conventional, nuclear, and renewable fuels.

When the government attempts to drive commercialization, the result is technological stagnation. Instead of relying on market signals (such as prices and consumer demand), companies rely in part on the government to push their technologies forward.

Even government-directed research that’s in the early stages of commercial readiness but has an end goal of improving the functionality of a wind turbine, the energy efficiency of a window, or extracting natural resources more effectively should be left to the private sector.

The budget rejects changes to take legacy programs off the taxpayer dime, like the four electricity generation conglomerates known as Power Marketing Administrations that are quasi-owned by the federal government but face little accountability from it.

The House budget would continue to preserve the four Power Marketing Administrations as they are, rather than improve them with reforms that both Democrat and Republican presidents have pushed for.

Electricity sector innovation: The House bill report acknowledges promising technologies and tools that would generate innovation, empower customers, and improve competition in the electricity sector. As the House report notes, technologies such as blockchain have huge potential to reduce inefficiencies in electricity delivery, move decisions about energy use closer to customers, and reduce costs for them.

The report encourages the Energy Department “to continue efforts to support … fundamental research and field validation of microgrid controllers and systems, and transactive energy concepts, including studies and evaluations of energy usage behavior in response to price signals.”

The incentive for electricity companies to develop and provide these innovative services to customers is strong in regions of the country where competitive retail electricity markets are allowed.

In contrast, entrenched monopoly electricity providers have been far more resistant to technological innovations that reduce costs. While there may be some minimal value to commission government research and reports on the uses of digital technologies in the electricity sector—which the private sector can and is doing—Congress should begin pursuing legislative and regulatory changes to promote the wider reach of competitive retail electricity markets.

“False promise” on nuclear waste management: The state of nuclear-waste management policy has fallen into disarray over the past several years, and the House bill provides no real leadership on the issue.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 requires the nuclear industry to pay the Energy Department to build a permanent government repository for the disposal of nuclear waste, which the department was supposed to begin doing by 1998. It was the distinct concern in the 1980s of the Environmental Protection Agency and others that interim storage not become a de facto permanent solution that distracted from this permanent repository. 

And yet the House bill appropriates $27.5 million for this shortsighted approach to identify a site for a federal interim storage facility for nuclear waste from commercial nuclear power plants without any policy direction for the long-term disposal that is needed.

Whereas, in the past, the House had shown dedicated leadership to finish the scientific review of a long-term repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada (as required under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act), the interim storage-only approach proposed here is only a patch to a broken system, and it’s doubtful that any state will take the Energy Department up on a bid to host an interim storage site without a clear plan for the long-term disposal that’s ultimately necessary.

Apt befuddlement on the uranium reserve: The House bill appropriately expresses skepticism of the administration’s plans for a uranium reserve. The proposed reserve currently lacks detail from start to finish on how it would work and what purposes it would serve.

The House bill is right to ask questions of the administration, especially because similar efforts in the past from both Republican and Democratic administrations have had negative economic consequences on the uranium mining industry.

Unfortunately, American uranium miners have often faced their own government as an obstacle to being competitive. The federal government has made it exceedingly difficult for mining in the U.S. by blocking access and defeat-by-delay regulatory structures.

While the administration’s proposal is well-intended to help the industry, it would be far better in the long term for the administration and Congress to continue pursuing regulatory and policy changes that enable miners to be competitive and promote sound environmental stewardship.

Removes Pro-Life and Conscience Protections

The financial services funding bill maintains pro-life and conscience rights riders related to the Federal Employee Health Benefits programs and the District of Columbia’s contraceptive mandate.

However, it modifies the long-standing pro-life Dornan Amendment to allow local D.C. funding to pay for abortions. When the Dornan Amendment was eliminated for a brief period during the Obama administration (2009-2011), the Associated Press reported that the District of Columbia funded 300 abortions.

Congress should reject this attempt to provide funding for abortions and restore the life-saving Dornan Amendment. 

The Health and Human Services bill maintains long-standing pro-life riders, including:

  • The Hyde Amendment, which generally prohibits appropriated funds from paying for abortions.
  • The Weldon Amendment, which protects health care providers from discrimination on the basis of their refusal to provide or pay for abortions, or refer women for abortion.
  • The Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which prohibits Health and Human Services funds from being spent on embryo-destructive research.

However, hostility to life and conscience rights is evident elsewhere in the bill.

A number of the Trump administration’s critically important policy priorities would get the ax, including:

  • A regulation to strengthen pro-life protections in the federal Title X family planning program.
  • A regulation to fully enforce civil rights law with respect to conscience and protect individuals and health care providers from discrimination or coercion in Health and Human Services-funded programs.
  • A regulation to fix a misguided Obama-era policy regarding the Affordable Care Act that would have created serious conscience conflicts for medical professionals by redefining “sex” to mean “gender identity” and “termination of pregnancy” with respect to nondiscrimination law.

Housing and Urban Development: Women seeking help at shelters for the homeless have survived rape, domestic violence, and/or sex trafficking. This bill, however, would force shelters to admit any biological male who self-identifies as a woman and allow him to share bathrooms, showers, and sleeping quarters with those women.

The bill would not only reverse the Trump administration’s progress in protecting women’s privacy and safety and the conscience rights of shelters, but would also make permanent the Obama administration’s attempt to force shelters nationwide to allow biological males in women’s spaces.

Congress should reject that language.

Weakens Homeland Security and Increases Dependence on Washington

The House Appropriations Committee has passed a Homeland Security bill and amendments that will make our country less safe, undermine the rule of law, and make states and localities even more dependent on the federal government and federal tax dollars.

While increasing funds to most other Department of Homeland Security components, the House bill makes severe cuts to both Customs and Border Protection ($75.1 million below the fiscal 2020 enacted level) and to Immigration and Customs Enforcement ($673.8 million below the fiscal 2020 enacted level).

Those cuts include no additional money for Border Patrol agents or border barriers.

It also rescinds $1.375 billion from the fiscal 2020 Procurement, Construction, and Improvements account in response to President Donald Trump’s using Defense Department funds for border barrier construction.

These cuts would hinder Customs and Border Protection’s ability to keep gang members, drugs, and illegal aliens out of the U.S., and prevent Immigration and Customs Enforcement from removing gang members and other serious criminal aliens from our country. 

The committee also passed an amendment from Reps. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., and Will Hurd, R-Texas, to bar the Department of Homeland Security from spending funds to detain, remove, put into removal proceedings, or deny work authorization to anyone who:

  • Meets the criteria to participate in the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
  • Meets the requirements for Temporary Protected Status designations for the 10 countries that were in place at the end of the Obama administration.

This amendment would undermine the Trump administration’s rescission of the DACA program as well as the termination of six TPS designations by providing amnesty and work authorization to beneficiaries of both programs.

Furthermore, the amendment, as written, expands DACA and TPS protections and benefits to populations broader than just those aliens who applied for and were granted relief. 

An amendment from Rep. David Price, D-N.C., would undercut some of the most significant and needed immigration changes made by the Trump administration.

It would prohibit Department of Homeland Security spending on:

  • A proposed asylum and credible fear rule that would curtail the current extensive abuse of asylum.
  • Migrant Protection Protocols, which have been a game changer in regaining operational control of our southwest border.
  • The safe third-country rule, which requires aliens to apply for asylum in the first safe country they enter, rather than only applying for asylum in the U.S., as well as the agreements the Trump administration made with Guatemala and other Central American countries to implement the safe third-country rule.

This amendment would lead to an open border and weaken our sovereignty as a nation.

The House bill significantly increases funding for DHS grants that are administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency: $474 million above the fiscal 2020 enacted level and $1.8 billion above the president’s fiscal 2021 request.

Boosting federal grants for states and localities increases their dependence on the federal taxpayer and decreases state and local security and disaster planning and preparation.

In addition, an amendment from Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., would cancel state and local repayments of outstanding loan balances made under the Stafford Disaster Relief Fund. That likewise disincentivizes states and localities to plan and prepare financially for emergencies because the federal taxpayers would bail them out.

Response to the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the U.S. has shown that states that prepare for, and adapt to, emergencies recover faster than those that don’t prepare and wait for federal assistance.

States and localities should pursue such self-reliance in the context of non-pandemic disasters as well.

Naming Commission Empowers Radical Left

The financial services bill includes a new Commission on Federal Naming and Displays. The job of the commission would be to identify items of federal property that are “inconsistent with the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

As is often the case in our nation’s endless culture war, initiatives that sound harmless from the outside can lead to bitter conflict.

The commission would examine “property names, monuments, statues, public artworks, historical markers, and other symbols owned by the Federal government”—which means it would cover an incalculably large number of items.

Clearly inspired by this summer’s controversies regarding statues and military base names, the commission would become a fierce battleground.

Many on the left are determined to leverage the cultural moment and transform the nation. In classic Orwellian fashion, that includes scouring the past for perceived transgressions.

Proponents of the commission will cite federal facilities with Confederate names as justification for the project. However, we have seen that the urge to “cancel” historical figures and tear down statues can quickly spread to national heroes, such as George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant.

Cultural overreach by the commission would be virtually guaranteed, especially since it would need to find new instances of “problematic” federal names and artwork to ensure that the commission survives in perpetuity.

While there is little chance that the proposed commission would pass muster in the Senate, the fact that it has support from the House majority is a troubling sign.

More Funding for Ineffective Education Programs

The new Labor-Health and Human Services-Education bill would direct $73.5 billion to federal education programs, even though federal policymakers already provided states with an additional $13.5 billion for K-12 education through the CARES Act—nearly the equivalent of what Washington annually spends on disadvantaged students in K-12 education.

Although states have allocated less than 1% of their CARES Act funding, the House proposal would increase federal education spending by $716 million more than in fiscal 2020, and is $6.9 billion more than requested by the president’s budget.

Unfortunately, the funding increases direct dollars to district schools that aren’t even open. In fact, the proposal increases funding by $403.5 million for 11 programs that the president’s budget sought to eliminate.

For instance, the Senate proposal increases funding for 21st Century Community Learning Centers by $13 million. Those centers have failed to improve the outcomes of participating students academically and behaviorally.

“Of the 12 behavioral outcomes assessed by the evaluation, six measures indicate that 21st Century Community Learning Centers produced more harm than good. Overall, teachers found participating students to have disciplinary problems that were confirmed by student-reported data,” wrote former Heritage Foundation analyst David Muhlhausen.

The proposal also increases funding for Head Start, a federal pre-K program, by $150 million, even though Head Start has repeatedly failed to improve student outcomes.

According to a 2012 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study, nearly all benefits Head Start participants gain disappear by third grade.

In fact, the study found harmful effects from Head Start participation relating to “cognitive, social-emotional, health, and parenting practices.”

The proposal increases funding for other federal education programs that are duplicative and ineffective, including:

  • Title I Grants for Local Education Agencies would receive $16.6 billion, $254 million more than the previous year. The president’s budget eliminated the program.
  • Student Support and Academic Enrichment State Grants, also eliminated by the president’s budget, would now receive $1.2 billion.
  • TRIO programs will now receive $1.1 billion, $150 million more than requested in the president’s budget.
  • Pell Grants increased by $150 to a maximum award of $6,495 per student.

Saddling future generations with debt, Congress continues to spend taxpayer dollars on duplicative and ineffective programs. Washington should return education funds to the states so states have the flexibility to spend their education dollars directly on local initiatives.

Although Washington funds only 8.5% of K-12 education, Congress has spent $2 trillion in the past 60 years on federal K-12 education initiatives—to little or no avail.

Congress should learn from its unsuccessful track record and return education funds to the states with no strings attached.

Conclusion

The second House “minibus” package would unnecessarily add hundreds of billions to the national debt, damage the rule of law, remove protections for the unborn, and further expand the reach and power of an already too-large federal government.

Members of Congress in both chambers should carefully consider the bill’s contents and find an alternative approach that better fits the nation’s founding principles of limited government and federalism.

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