Deep in the fine print of the two-year budget deal in Congress

Published: Thursday, February 08, 2018 @ 9:20 AM

As the Congress moved to approve a stopgap funding plan to avoid a government shutdown, and a two-year budget agreement worked out by leaders of both parties, lawmakers were still digging into the details of that budget deal, which approves close to $400 billion in new spending over the next two years, the first significant increase since the Obama Stimulus law in 2009, as Republicans celebrated more money for the military, and Democrats highlighted more money for domestic programs.

“With today’s vote, we’re finally going to get the military the budget they need,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, as Republicans celebrated $165 billion in new military funds over the next two years.

“That is by far the biggest achievement in this bill,” Ryan added.

But as with any bill of this size – 652 pages – there was a lot more than the headlines on Congressional press releases.

Here’s some of the details in the fine print:

1. What’s a good summary of this bill? There will be a double digit increase in spending this year and next year in the budget, for both the military and non-defense programs. The $165 billion for defense and the $131 billion for non-defense totals to $296 billion over two years. There is also $89 billion in disaster relief. $20 billion will be added for new roads and bridges. The tax provisions will cost just over $17 billion. Most of the spending details still have to be worked out, so you won’t see a breakdown of those on the House or Senate floor until mid-to-late March, when the Congress will try to finish work on the 2018 budget, months behind schedule.

2. For Republicans, it’s all about the Pentagon. From the White House and Capitol Hill, the GOP focus in this budget deal is on the increases for military spending. Not only does the base budget for the Pentagon go up by $165 billion, but even more will be added via “Overseas Contingency Operations,” bringing the Pentagon budget to $700 billion in 2018, and $716 billion in 2019. In order to get that level of funding, and do away with the “sequester,” GOP leaders had to allow for a big increase in domestic spending as well. But it was the military angle that was hammered home by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

3. For Democrats, it’s all about non-defense spending.While the Republicans talk about the military spending increase, Democrats are focusing on the extra $131 billion going to domestic programs under this agreement. $6 billion for the opioid epidemic. $2 billion more to the National Institutes of Health for advanced medical research efforts. It funds Community Health Centers for two years. Extends the Children’s Health Insurance Program for another four years. “It will help America in so many ways,” said Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), whose office used this graphic on Twitter about the deal. It’s not hard to tell what each side was emphasizing.

4. $89.3 billion in delayed disaster relief. The budget deal finally frees up a large package of disaster aid for those hit by hurricanes in 2017, as well as money to deal with recent wildfires in California. Lawmakers from Texas and Florida have been making noise for months about the need for more disaster aid – the House approved a plan just before Christmas, but the Senate had not taken any action on that legislation. This bill will also help those hit in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as it will bring the total amount of money spent on disasters in 2017-2018 to over $140 billion – and many say that tab will grow even more in the months ahead.

5. Another piece of the Obama health law gone. It didn’t get much fanfare, but the budget deal does away with Medicare’s “Independent Payment Advisory Board.” This was what some Republicans called “death panels” back during the debate over the Obama health law in 2009-2010. The group would meet if Medicare’s growth rate went over a certain level, triggering the need for cuts. So, critics said it would mean decisions on who got care and who did not. There were Democrats who didn’t like the IPAB – but this was a check mark on the GOP side for sure in this budget agreement.

6. Two new special committees in Congress. Unless you’re a legislative nerd like me, this one isn’t getting much attention – but the budget deal would set up two new special committees in the House and Senate, to look at two separate matters – pensions and the budget process in Congress. On pensions, as more companies stop paying for pension plans, the cost to the government is going up to help bail out retirees who had been counting on that money. As for the budget process – this bill is a pretty good example that things aren’t working, as the budget work for 2017 was supposed to be done by September 30 – of LAST year. As I have reported many times, since the budget process was reworked in 1974, Congress has finished its spending work on time only in 1976, 1988, 1994 and 1996. That’s right. Four times in over 40 years.

7. Some very familiar budget gimmicks. I’ve seen this too many times. Yes, there are provisions in this budget deal which would save money. But it won’t happen for a number of years – which means it probably won’t happen. If you find the two section labeled “Offsets,” there are a number of provisions that save money. Customs user fees would be added in – 2026. $1.64 billion in Aviation Security Service fees in – 2026. New immigration fees in – 2027. You get the point. They are legitimate items in the “ten year budget window” for Congress, but it’s not like the money is coming in to offset new spending in 2018 or 2019 under this agreement. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) told reporters that most of the offsets in the bill “aren’t particularly real.”

8. The debt limit will increase by (fill in the blank). This two-year budget deal includes language which will ‘suspend’ the nation’s debt ceiling temporarily, until March 1, 2019. Sometimes the Congress picks a number by which to raise the debt ceiling. Sometimes the Congress just allows it to go up until a certain date. This time, it’s anyone’s guess as to how much the debt will go up over the next 13 months. Maybe we should have a pool in the Press Gallery.

9. More life for the tax extenders. About every year or two, there is a push to renew a series of temporary tax breaks, known as the “tax extenders.” It seemed like that wasn’t going to happen, and then, this budget deal appeared, and they were added in. The extension of the 7-year recovery period for motorsports entertainment complexes is a familiar one, along with a tax break for race horses, and special expensing rules for certain film, TV and live theatrical productions. This is not a full list below, but you will notice that all of these breaks are for 2017 – last year. A full breakdown of all the tax provisions is available from the Joint Committee on Taxation.

10. And there were some late edits to the bill. What is the old saying? You don’t want to watch sausage or legislation being made. We’ve had examples of late adds in recent bills, and here’s another one that I stumbled on. All I can say is that most people probably didn’t read the bill, because I haven’t seen many people talking about this handwritten addition. It was only on page 146 – but, remember, not many people read the actual bills.

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After latest indictments, President Trump vents on Twitter about Russia investigation

Published: Sunday, February 18, 2018 @ 4:01 AM

In the wake of a fresh round of indictments in the wide-ranging investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign, President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Saturday and Sunday to repeatedly express his frustration with the probe, again proclaiming his innocence, attacking his critics, and demanding attention instead on actions of the Obama Administration and Hillary Clinton.

“I never said Russia did not meddle in the election,” the President tweeted on Sunday morning – though Mr. Trump has been very slow to embrace the concept that Russia was at fault, as he derided the investigations into Russian interference in 2016.

“They are laughing their asses off in Moscow,” the President said on Twitter. “Get smart America!”

Those were just a sampling of a number of tweets from this weekend, as the President let off steam on a number of fronts.

The President even rebuked his own National Security Adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, over a point that Mr. Trump and his supporters have zeroed in on repeatedly – a lack of evidence that ties any Russian operation to the Trump Campaign.

“General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians,” as the President again tried to switch the attention of the moment to questions that the GOP has raised about Hillary Clinton, the Steele Dossier, and the Democratic National Committee.

“The Fake News Media never fails,” the President wrote on Saturday, repeatedly making the argument that any Russian interference in 2016 did not tip the scales of the election in his favor.

“Funny how the Fake News Media doesn’t want to say that the Russian group was formed in 2014, long before my run for President,” the President added.

“The Russian “hoax” was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia – it never did!” he tweeted.

Critics of the President noted what was missing in his Saturday and Sunday tweets about the Russia investigation was any pledge by Mr. Trump to implement tougher sanctions against Russia which were approved by the Congress, or to order tougher measures to stop any Russian meddling.

Last week, the nation’s top intelligence officials all agreed that Russia was going to try to repeat their 2016 effort in the 2018 election – asked by Democrats if there was any specific order from the President to focus on that threat, the intelligence chiefs only indicated that they were focused on the matter.

“Look, this is pretty simple,” said retired Gen. Michael Hayden, a former head of the National Security Agency. “The Russians objective was to mess with our heads.”

“Based on his late PM – this AM joint Twitter meltdown, it’s safe to say “Trump” is having a nervous breakdown as Mueller’s walls close in,” said John Schindler, a former U.S. intelligence official who has been highly critical of the President’s statements on the Russia probe.

Late on Saturday night, the President also drew in the Russia investigation to criticize the FBI over the mass shooting at a high school in Florida last week.

” They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign,” the President said.

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Digging inside the details of the new indictments in the Russia probe

Published: Friday, February 16, 2018 @ 12:13 PM

The investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election for President on Friday presented some of the first official government evidence of actions taken in the campaign, as a federal grand jury returned an indictment against 13 Russians and 3 Russian entities, alleging that they used social media to support President Donald Trump, and oppose Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

The highly detailed 37 page indictment covered everything from social media ads taken out by the Russian ‘Internet Freedom Agency,’ to efforts to help with Trump rallies in Florida and other states – and even a post-election foray into anti-Trump events.

Here is some of what we learned on Friday:

1. Russian interference no longer a “hoax.” For months, President Trump has complained that the Russia investigation is a hoax. But now, the feds have laid out a highly detailed indictment, alleging that 13 Russians and 3 different Russian entities used social media to buy political ads against Hillary Clinton (“Ohio Wants Hillary 4 Prison”), and for Donald Trump (“Trump is our only hope for a better future!”), organized actual rallies to support Mr. Trump (“Florida Goes Trump”), and much more. “If you had any doubt that Russia meddled in our 2016 elections, this is your wake-up call,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE). Back in September, the President derided the idea that Russian groups had bought social media ads in the 2016 campaign. “The Russia hoax continues, now it’s ads on Facebook,” he tweeted. But Friday, the President seemed to finally accept that there had been Russian interference.

2. Rosenstein takes the lead on new indictments. While Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is officially the boss of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Rosenstein has not participated in any of the earlier indictment or guilty plea announcements. But today, the ‘DAG’ was front and center at the Justice Department. He laid out the basics of the indictments of 13 Russians and described the outlines of the effort to meddle in the 2016 election. Rosenstein took only a few questions.

3. Trump – and his supporters – proclaim “NO COLLUSION.” On Twitter, and then in a statement issued by the White House on Friday afternoon, the President made clear that the latest indictments showed nothing in the way of collusion between Russians and his campaign. (The all-caps “NO COLLUSION” was in the White House statement.) But what was really said by Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein? “Now, there is no allegation – in this indictment – that any American was a knowing particpant in this illegal activity,” Rosenstein said, as he used “in this indictment” several times.

4. No names revealed of who Russians contacted. As the indictment detailed efforts by the Russians to set up events for Trump supporters in Florida, there were contacts made with people on the Trump Campaign. The indictment doesn’t list the names of those who were contacted by the ‘’ account – instead, they are referred to as “Campaign Official 1,” “Campaign Official 2” and so on. But let me play devil’s advocate for a minute. Why not reveal who those people were? Is it really that big of a deal?

5. Mueller reveals some of his evidence. At one point in the indictment, the feds quote an email from one of the Russians, Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina, in which she said: “We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke).” While that jumps off the page of the indictment, it is also seems to send a message – that the FBI has a lot more information, from the social media accounts that were used by the Russians, to emails and more. Could some of this also be from intelligence efforts? We’ll see.

6. Hillary Clinton in a cage – Russian supported? In the indictment, it talks about how the Russians moved “to build a cage large enough to hold an actress depicting (Hillary) Clinton in a prison uniform. That jangled the memory of several reporters, who found stories about such a scene in Florida, during the 2016 campaign. And others remembered the Hillary-in-a-cage routine from other states.

7. After the election, the Russians play both sides. The indictment also revealed that after the election was over – and President Trump had been declared the victor – the Russians even went into the business of anti-Trump rallies in New York and Charlotte, North Carolina. “Trump is NOT my President,” was the rally in New York – while at the same time, the group was organizing an event to “support President-Elect Donald Trump.”

8. Another guilty plea as well for the Mueller probe. Minutes after the indictments against the 13 Russians was released, the Special Counsel also revealed a recent guilty plea, from February 2, of Richard Pinedo, from California. Pinedo was charged with “Identity Fraud,” which may be related to efforts by the Russians indicted on Friday to use American identities while engaging in their work on the 2016 Presidential election. It wasn’t exactly clear how Pinedo fits in, though it seems that he is the first American to be charged with directly helping the Russian operation to influence the 2016 campaign – but there is no evidence presented that he knew that was happening. Documents show Pinedo could face up to 15 years in prison.

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U.S. may put tarriffs on China, other steel-producing countries

Published: Friday, February 16, 2018 @ 4:26 PM
Updated: Friday, February 16, 2018 @ 4:26 PM

            Workers at the Hangzhou Iron and Steel Group plant, a vast labyrinth of blast furnaces, warehouses, chimneys and worker dormitories covering hundreds of acres, in Hangzhou, China, April 11, 2017. China’s vast steel industry is a major target of President Donald Trump’s move to rethink American trade, but taming China’s mills can be expensive and difficult. (Giulia Marchi/The New York Times)
            GIULIA MARCHI
Workers at the Hangzhou Iron and Steel Group plant, a vast labyrinth of blast furnaces, warehouses, chimneys and worker dormitories covering hundreds of acres, in Hangzhou, China, April 11, 2017. China’s vast steel industry is a major target of President Donald Trump’s move to rethink American trade, but taming China’s mills can be expensive and difficult. (Giulia Marchi/The New York Times)(GIULIA MARCHI)

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Friday urged President Donald Trump to impose steep tariffs on China and other steel-producing countries, contending they are illegally dumping steel into U.S. markets.

In a 262-page report that was praised by many Ohio lawmakers, Ross charged that imported steel products are priced “substantially lower” than steel produced in the United States and declared that the United States is now the largest importer of steel in the world.

Ross urged the White House either to impose tariffs as high as 53 percent on China, Russia, South Korea and nine other steel producing countries or levy a 24-percent tariff on imported steel from any country.

RELATED: China criticizes U.S. steel anti-dumping measures

“Excessive steel imports have adversely impacted the steel industry,” Ross wrote, adding that “numerous U.S. steel mill closures, a substantial decline in employment, lost domestic sales and market share, and marginal annual net income for U.S.-based steel companies illustrate the decline of the U.S. steel industry.”

The administration launched an investigation into steel dumping last year and Trump has 90 days to levy the tariffs. But new tariffs will harm consumers because they would pay higher prices for products which use steel, such as cars and trucks.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, praised Ross’s report, but said “Ohio steelworkers don’t need a report to tell them they are losing jobs to Chinese cheating.”

“More important than releasing the findings of this report is taking swift and tough action that provides real, long-lasting relief for our steel industry, which is facing an onslaught of imports as we wait for a decision,” Brown said.

Emily Benavides, a spokesman for Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Portman “looks forward to reviewing the Commerce Department’s recommendations.”

RELATED: Trump considering ‘all options’ on steel

“He believes we should work together to protect American jobs and hold our trading partners accountable when they cheat,” she said. “And he continues to believe the administration should move quickly to make a final decision on this investigation.”

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Mueller investigation charges 13 Russians in investigation over 2016 election interference

Published: Friday, February 16, 2018 @ 8:27 AM

The office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller announced Friday that thirteen Russian nationals and three Russian groups had been charged with violating U.S. criminal laws for interfering with the 2016 election, detailing a string of efforts to help President Donald Trump’s campaign, and sew doubt about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

“Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and creating false U.S. personas, operated social media pages and groups designed to attract U.S. audiences,” the indictment alleged, detailing efforts to buy political ads on social media.

The indictment, returned by a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C. earlier today, charged that the group first went after multiple candidates for President, and then fine tuned their message.

“Defendants’ operation included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump (“Trump Campaign”) and disparaging Hillary Clinton.”

In a highly detailed 37 page indictment, the Special Counsel’s office described a series of efforts to organize rallies to help Mr. Trump in Florida, Pennsylvania and New York.

At one point, the indictment alleges that Russians posing as Americans, communicated directly with Trump Campaign staff officials about organizing efforts in Florida.

There was no evidence presented in the indictment that campaign officials knew they were getting help from a Russian group.

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