Following filibusters from both sides of the aisle – including a late-night stand by Republican Sen. Rand Paul that briefly shut down the government – Congress has passed a massive spending bill that will keep the government open through September 2019, at a cost of $320 billion in new debt.
The bill makes crucial investments in infrastructure and the opioid fight; funds hurricane, flood and fire relief; extends children’s health insurance; lards the Pentagon with billions more than even president Trump requested; and also renews tax breaks for NASCAR, race horses, and rum. Putting the destructive politics of brinksmanship off the table until after the midterm elections, the bill also suspends the debt limit until March of 2019.
Passage of the bill – 71-28 in the Senate; 240-186 in the House – comes at a steep price. In a blow to liberals, there are no new protections or political promises for Dreamers, placing hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children at risk for deportation.
In a blow to conservatives, the bill destroys all pretense that the Republican party believes in fiscal restraint, or views the federal debt as anything but a political cudgel to be wielded against Democrats. Sen. Paul in his filibuster denounced the GOP’s “intellectual dishonesty,” asking his colleagues: “If you were against President Obama’s deficits, and now you’re for the Republican deficits, isn’t that the very definition of hypocrisy?”
Here’s what you need to know:
The Dreamers are left in the cold
Nancy Pelosi provided hopeful theatrics on Wednesday. Using her privilege as minority leader, Pelosi staged a rare House filibuster, holding the floor and reading biographical sketches of Dreamers who could soon be detained and forced out of America because of president Trump’s decision to end the DACA program. Speaking for more than eight hours, a modern record, Pelosi demanded Speaker Paul Ryan commit to a vote on bipartisan immigration legislation, as GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell has promised Democrats in his chamber.
Democrats had leverage. Despite a strong Republican majority in the House, Ryan required Democratic votes for passage of the spending deal because hard-right fiscal conservatives opposed it. Summing up the feelings of many Freedom Caucus members, Alabama Republican Rep. Mo Brooks blasted the bill as “a debt junkie’s dream” and insisted, “I’m not only a no,” on the bill. “I’m a hell no.”
But in the end, the Pelosi filibuster amounted to little. Pelosi voted no, herself. But more than 70 House Democrats cast their votes with the Republicans, leaving Dreamers, including 800 active duty service members, with new nightmares of ICE.
In the normal course of federal budgeting, there’s a tradeoff between defense priorities and domestic priorities — guns vs. butter as the saying goes. But in this budget deal there’s no tradeoff. Everybody gets more money.
The biggest increase is for defense spending – $165 billion over two years – a top priority for Republicans, though many Democrats are happy to heap cash on the Pentagon too. “The winners today are the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces,” Speaker Ryan said Thursday. “Secretary Mattis will finally have the resources to rebuild a badly-depleted military.” (Last year, the cash-strapped Pentagon received $37 billion more funding than Trump requested.)
Democrats are crowing about domestic spending increases of $131 billion under this bill. Details are scant, but new investments include $20 billion for infrastructure, $6 billion for the opioid epidemic, and $2 billion dollars for medical research. The bill also ensures the solvency of the Children’s Health Insurance Program for the next decade, an extension of four years.
The bill adds $89 billion to the recovery fund for climate-fueled disasters in hurricane-, flood- and/or fire ravaged Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas and California.
In the end, this spending bill became a Christmas tree, with presents for many special interests. It renews more than $17 billion in recently expired tax breaks, rewarding NASCAR tracks and racehorse owners, craft breweries and producers of rum and ethanol.
What it all means:
At a surface level, the budget agreement represents a rare spasm of functional government in Washington. It’s odd to describe dead-of-night passage of a bill to end the second shutdown in a month “functional.” But consider that for the next year, the government’s lights will stay on, the military won’t have to budget month-to month according to the latest stopgap spending measure and the debt ceiling won’t be breached. By the very low standards set by recent congresses, this is an improvement.
But the budget deal may also prove to be economically dangerous. In the wake of the GOP’s debt-financed tax cuts, the spending bill will contribute to a projected $1.2 trillion deficit next year, and tee up trillion dollar deficits into the foreseeable future, according the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB).
What’s more, the price tag of GOP tax cuts and new spending over the coming years now rivals that of the Recovery Act signed by president Obama at the depth of the Great Recession. This means that Republicans are delivering a giant jolt of stimulus — to an economy that’s already running hot.
“This is exactly the wrong fiscal policy at the wrong time,” Maya MacGuineas, president of the CRFB told the New York Times. “We are overheating the economy and selling out the future. It’s shortsighted and foolhardy.”