Defense, tourism among winners in spending bill

Author: Associated Press
MGN Online

WASHINGTON (AP) – A Michigan boot-maker, potato farmers and more than 1,200 contractors that supply parts for a next-generation fighter plane are among the many winners in the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill passed by Congress.

Supporters of manufacturers added a provision that would create public-private partnerships to accelerate the transition of new technologies from basic research to commercial applications. The travel and tourism industry won a six-year renewal of the Corporation for Travel Promotion, or Brand USA, to promote tourism in the United States. Blue Cross and Blue Shield health plans, which benefit from a unique tax break that’s threatened by the Affordable Care Act, won a provision that makes sure they keep it.

The items were widely supported but had failed to advance in a Congress beset by feuding and stalemate. So they caught a ride on the unstoppable omnibus measure, the last major train leaving the Capitol Hill station this year.

So too did a renewal of federal payments to support rural school districts surrounded by federal lands, which are deprived of property tax revenue. Medical marijuana dispensaries won new guarantees against harassment by federal authorities. And potato farmers finally won the inclusion of white potatoes in the market basket of foods that can be purchased under a federal food aid program for low-income pregnant women and mothers of young children.

Another provision in the bill is aimed at protecting Bates Footwear, a Michigan-based manufacturer that supplies boots to the military, from new regulations that expand the definition of how big a small business can be in order to qualify for government set-asides. The standard went from 500 workers to 1,000 workers two years ago, making more manufacturers eligible. The Michigan delegation is the driving force behind a provision ordering the Defense Logistics Agency to examine the new rules and whether they will harm the footwear industry.

The bill started out at a whopping 1,603 pages but grew by 161 more with the inclusion of legislation designed to shore up critically underfunded multiemployer pension plans. The bipartisan measure would, for the first time, allow such pension plans to reduce the pensions of current retirees, drawing fire from many unions and the powerful AARP. Such opposition blocked the bill from advancing as a stand-alone measure but couldn’t keep it out of the omnibus bill.

The core of the bill is the $1.1 trillion to fund the one-third of the federal budget that Congress renews each year, typically making small adjustments. Such so-called discretionary appropriations have been held flat at current levels after being given relief from automatic spending cuts called sequestration last year.

The sweeping measure extends its reach into every corner of government, from $5.4 billion to battle Ebola and another $5 billion to fight Islamic State militants, to funding for medical research and record funding for subsidies to airlines serving rural airports.

Agencies winning increases include the FBI, NASA, the National Institutes of Health and a program to process a large backlog of rape kits used to gather evidence in sexual assault cases. The maximum Pell Grant would increase $100 to $5,830, and the Pentagon would be awarded 38 new F-35 aircraft, four more than requested, at a cost of almost a half-billion dollars. The plane is built chiefly by Lockheed Martin, which subcontracts to more than 1,200 domestic suppliers in 45 states and Puerto Rico, ensuring broad support on Capitol Hill.

There’s more than $3 billion for weapons systems the Pentagon didn’t ask for, including $144 million in emergency war funds for top-to-bottom rebuilds of Apache attack helicopters – a boon to The Boeing Co., which does most of the work. Among the winners are Abrams tanks and an over-budget Pentagon space launch system produced by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

“A lot of these are ones that Congress has been keeping going for a long time, and there’s also money stuffed into (war accounts) so that is outside of the caps and a way to evade the caps, things like $1.2 billion for the National Guard and Reserve, which is really a base budget item,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of the Washington watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Agencies bearing cuts include the IRS, which will absorb a $346 million cut, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which will be cut by $60 million.

Military members and Pentagon civilian workers would receive a 1 percent pay hike.

Democrats blocked the most ambitious attempts by Republicans to thwart Obama administration regulations on clean water, ivory sales and the carbon emissions blamed for global warming. Republicans blocked the EPA from listing the sage grouse as an endangered species, which ensures swaths of land in the West will be available for oil and natural gas exploration and other development. Republicans also won a policy rider that exempts many agricultural projects from clean water rules.

Taxpayers for Common Sense found a number of other gems, including a provision that reauthorizes $1 million in additional funding for the Wheeling National Heritage area to celebrate the city’s history and its role as the birthplace of West Virginia during the Civil War.

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