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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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White House agrees to review of DOJ actions in 2016 campaign

Published: Monday, May 21, 2018 @ 4:59 PM

A day after President Donald Trump demanded an investigation into how the FBI dealt with investigations during the 2016 campaign, the White House accepted a plan from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to expand an ongoing review of the probe into Russian interference in the elections, and how it touched on the Trump Campaign.

“Based on the meeting with the President, the Department of Justice has asked the Inspector General to expand its current investigation to include any irregularities with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s or the Department of Justice’s tactics concerning the Trump Campaign,” read a statement issued by the White House.

“It was also agreed that White House Chief of Staff Kelly will immediately set up a meeting with the FBI, DOJ, and DNI together with Congressional Leaders to review highly classified and other information they have requested,” the statement added, referring to an ongoing battle between Republicans in Congress and the feds for documents about the Russia probe.

The outcome of the meeting between Mr. Trump, the Deputy Attorney General, the FBI Director, and the Director of National Intelligence – which was not listed on the President’s public schedule – was less explosive than what President Trump had seemingly threatened on Sunday, when he said he would demand a full investigation into whether the feds had “infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes.”

Mr. Trump and Congressional Republicans have been playing up the issue in recent days, arguing that initial FBI efforts to find out what Russia was doing with relation to the Trump Campaign, was actually an effort to undermine Mr. Trump’s bid for the White House.

But Democrats say what’s going on now is an effort by Mr. Trump and his allies in the Congress to undermine the current investigation, by allowing the President’s lawyers to see what evidence the Special Counsel’s office – and maybe U.S. Intelligence – had been able to gather during the 2016 campaign.

The Monday meeting at the White House came as Republicans stepped up demands for documents about the investigation, as Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), asked the Justice Department for information on contacts between officials and former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, who put together a controversial ‘dossier’ on the President, funded by Democratic sources.

In a letter to Rosenstein, Grassley zeroed in Monday on Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr, and his contacts with Steele.

“Accordingly, please provide all records related to Mr. Ohr’s communications about these matters, including: (1) emails from Mr. Ohr’s personal and work accounts, (2) phone logs, (3) handwritten notes, and (4) text messages from personal and work accounts,” Grassley wrote in a letter.

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Local Congressman Jim Jordan could become one of most powerful D.C. players

Published: Monday, May 21, 2018 @ 6:00 AM

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, speaking here to a group of business leaders in Urbana, founded the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative lawmakers that at times has been able to influence legislation in Congress. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, speaking here to a group of business leaders in Urbana, founded the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative lawmakers that at times has been able to influence legislation in Congress. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

With the 2018 midterm elections months away, experts are eyeing two scenarios for House Republicans: One: they lose the House majority. Two: They keep the majority, but it shrinks.

For U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, the first scenario is a nightmare.

The second could make him one of the most powerful people in Washington.

Jordan, who saw his two endorsed GOP candidates for Ohio U.S House seats fall in the May 8 primary elections, nonetheless has not lost any political capital with their defeat. Most of the roughly three dozen members of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, which he founded, are in safe seats heading into November.

RELATED: Jordan considers run for speaker

Instead, it’s House GOP moderates who are more likely to lose their seats, meaning that even with the primary defeats of Melanie Leneghan and state Rep. Christina Hagan in Ohio, Jordan stands to gain ground next year, providing, of course, that House Republicans keep their majority.

That may not mean that Jordan becomes the next House speaker — an idea the Urbana Republican floated in the aftermath of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s decision to retire at the end of this Congress. But it may mean having enough votes to be the deciding factor in what does and doesn’t pass the House.

That power was on display Friday when Jordan and the Freedom Caucus helped defeat a Republican farm bill over an immigration dispute.

Should the GOP hang onto the majority, said one Ohio Republican political strategist, Jordan “has a little more influence, absolutely. He can prevent us from getting to 218 (votes necessary to pass a bill) or he can help us to get 218. And we’ll need him every time we need to get to 218.”

RELATED: Military force in Syria should be on the table, Jordan says.

Odd math

Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics said there is a ceiling on Jordan’s power.

“I have a hard time seeing how Jordan will have the votes to be speaker,” Kondik said. “It’s not like he needed one Melanie Leneghan to do that. He probably needed 50 Melanie Leneghans.”

In the odd math of politics in Washington, however, ultraconservatives like Jordan gain when the party loses seats.

“The reality is the only time we really have power with Republicans is when it’s close,” said Tom Zawistowski, a tea party leader from Portage County in northeast Ohio. “The worst thing that happens is we hold all the state offices and a supermajority in the House and Senate because then they don’t need you, they don’t need your vote…you’re better off with 51 votes in the Senate, because if they have 60, they can tell (Kentucky Sen.) Rand Paul to go pound salt.”

RELATED: Jordan says Boehner is angry, bitter

Influential caucus

Jordan, a former wrestler elected to the House in 2006, founded the House Freedom Caucus in 2015. Since then, that caucus – which numbers only two or three dozen – has held an out-sized influence on the House Republican caucus, which often needs their votes in order to reach the 218 majority threshold.

Their lack of support for a GOP replacement bill to the 2010 health law known as Obamacare contributed to Ryan’s decision to pull the bill. More recently, the group was among those who voted against a mammoth spending bill. But they were also key in the passage of the 2017 tax overhaul, which Jordan calls one of the few legislative achievements of this Congress.

In 2015, the Freedom Caucus’ demands were one of the reasons then-Speaker John Boehner decided to resign. Boehner, in an October 2017 interview with Politico, called the group “anarchists” who “want total chaos.” He’s been quoted as calling Jordan a “legislative terrorist.”

Whether it is as speaker — Ryan has endorsed House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California for the speakership — or in some other capacity, Jordan’s focus is on pushing the agenda to the right.

“What we’re trying to do is impact policy in a way that we told voters we are going to do, in a way consistent with the mandate entrusted to us in 2016,” Jordan said.

RELATED: Turner urges EPA administrator to release chemical study

Divisive figure

The Republican speaker battle won’t take place if Democrats capture the House in November. But conservative groups are already touting Jordan for the post.

Noah Wall, vice president of advocacy for FreedomWorks, a tea party-affiliated organization, said his organization has received 25,000 signatures on a petition they’ve circulated calling for Jordan to run for speaker. He called Jordan “kind of a cult hero” to the group’s activists.

But others in the party see him as more of a divisive figure.

“With Jim Jordan, everyone has a strong opinion of him,” said one Ohio Republican political strategist who spoke on a condition of anonymity. “Nobody is ambivalent. Nobody doesn’t care. And the problem with that is there are 30 people who love him and a whole bunch of people who don’t like him.”

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Trump targets ex-Obama CIA chief in fresh attacks on Russia probe

Published: Monday, May 21, 2018 @ 8:28 AM

For a second straight day, President Trump used Twitter to go on the attack over the probe into links between Russian interference into the 2016 elections and his own campaign for President, this time targeting a former CIA Director in the Obama Administration, John Brennan, who publicly ridiculed the President and GOP leaders in Congress on Sunday, after Mr. Trump launched a Twitter barrage over the fairness of the Russia probe.

“John Brennan is panicking,” the President said of the former CIA chief. “He has disgraced himself, he has disgraced the Country, he has disgraced the entire Intelligence Community.”

In his tweets, Mr. Trump placed Brennan at the center of a conspiracy to use the ‘Steele Dossier’ to start what the President says was a politically motivated investigation of the Trump Campaign.

“This guy is the genesis of this whole Debacle,” the President wrote, quoting Dan Bongino, a conservative commentator who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Florida and Maryland.

“This was a Political hit job,” the President wrote.

Mr. Trump’s tweets came just a few hours before he was going to the CIA to swear in the new Director of Central Intelligence, Gina Haspel, who was confirmed to the post last Thursday by the U.S. Senate.

Ironically, Brennan has been a strong public supporter of Haspel, breaking with many Democrats, who had pressed for her rejection in the Senate.

Brennan, who was CIA Director during the second term of the Obama Administration, earned the ire of the President with a Sunday tweet that not only slammed the President, but as GOP leaders in Congress, accusing them of doing nothing in the face of an effort by Mr. Trump to interfere in a lawful investigation of Russian meddling in 2016.

Brennan has sniped at Mr. Trump on Twitter before, accusing him earlier this month of lying about the Iran nuclear deal, and arguing he has diminished the office of the President of the United States.

“Your hypocrisy knows no bounds,” Brennan tweeted in late April, when Mr. Trump accused former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper of leaking the Steele Dossier to CNN and lying about it.

The tweets by the President on Monday morning did not rival his outburst on Sunday, in which he savaged the probe of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and said he would demand a review of whether the investigation was political in nature.

Top Justice Department officials responded on Sunday evening by saying they would have the Inspector General review Mr. Trump’s claims.

It was not immediately clear if that move satisfied the President, who made this declaration Sunday afternoon on Twitter:

Democrats derided the President’s outburst on Twitter, again saying the Mueller investigation should be allowed to go forward without interference.

“Trump can wriggle and squirm and spew on Twitter all he wants, but in America the law will run its own course,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

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Trump explodes on Twitter, demands new review of 2016 investigation

Published: Sunday, May 20, 2018 @ 3:12 PM

Venting his frustration in a series of tweets on Sunday, President Donald Trump again demanded to know how the Justice Department, FBI, and Obama Administration handled questions of Russian interference in the 2016 election, saying he would request a new review specifically to see if an investigation was opened for ‘political purposes’ involving his campaign.

“I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!” the President said.

It was one of a number of tweets where Mr. Trump flashed aggravation with the investigation into questions of Russian interference in the 2016 elections this weekend, as he repeated his charge that the feds had gone easy on Hillary Clinton and Democrats, while focusing investigative resources on his own campaign.

What seemingly set off Mr. Trump on Sunday was a report in the New York Times, which said Donald Trump Jr. had held a meeting at Trump Tower in the months before the elections, to hear an offer of help from emissaries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“The Witch Hunt finds no Collusion with Russia – so now they’re looking at the rest of the World,” the President tweeted.

The President’s call for a review of how the FBI handled questions about Russian interference is already the subject of a review inside the Justice Department – it wasn’t clear how this request would be dealt with by officials.

“There are rules,” said Carrie Cordero, a former Justice Department national security lawyer, who is now a professor at Georgetown University Law School.

In Congress, Democrats saw the President’s tweets as a signal of one thing – that he’s worried about what investigators are finding out about the 2016 probe, as they raised questions of whether the President is trying to exert political pressure on the Justice Department.

“The President has sent 8 tweets in 5 hours on Hillary and the Mueller investigation,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA). “He is unhinged.”

“A President who has nothing to hide would not have done another series of tweets this Sunday Morning smearing the DOJ investigation,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA).

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