It’s supposed to be legislation to fund the U.S. government. But that’s hardly all.
The spending bills being considered in Congress are already full of what fiscal waste-watchers brand as unrelated, wasteful spending. It would, for example, allow people to carry guns on Army Corps of Engineers land. It would send more dollars to theaters and throw more money at an aquatic plant control research program singled out by the watchdog groups as a questionable expense.
That’s just the start.
The House has spent all week voting on dozens of amendments to spending bills that would keep the government running past October 1, the start of the next fiscal year. The Senate will begin its votes soon. The bills are a chance for lawmakers – and special interests – to include money for pet projects, often with little public awareness or input.
Such provisions are usually slipped into legislation in barely-watched committee sessions, as part of bills that bulge with hundreds of legalese-laden pages. If an amendment ends up with a House floor vote, it usually gets 10 minutes of debate, five for each side, and possibly a late night vote. Wednesday, the House considered 72 amendments, with the last vote at 11:20 P.M. Thursday, it deliberated over another 54.
The House passed a big spending bill Thursday that included funding for Defense, energy, veterans and other items. Other spending bills are pending.
Some of the provisions in the various bills are old favorites, or punching bags, depending on the point of view.
Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., proposed more money for the Aquatic Plant Control Research Program. The program looks at ways to manage invasive water plants like Hydrilla that can cause havoc for boating and fishing. Mast wants the program to look at toxic algal blooms.
“It makes people sick. It destroys home values and businesses. It is all because of a guacamole-like toxic algal blooms that can occur year after year,” Mast said on the House floor Wednesday. The amendment passed on a voice vote.
According to the 2017 Pig Book, authored by the fiscal watchdog group Citizens for Government Waste, there have been 23 earmarks, or special project allocations, totaling $47.1 million for aquatic plant control since 1994.
An earmark is regarded as funding that solely benefits a local interest, and usually is included in legislation without a hearing or competition with other projects seeking funding. Lawmakers counter that such projects are important to their constituents. Earmarks are now banned, after outcries by watchdog groups – which now maintain earmarks are still around, but harder to find.
Citizens Against Government Waste, for instance, has not been pleased with the Save America’s Treasures program, a series of grants that pays for preservation of historic sites, including the restoration of old theaters, museums and opera houses. The House is considering $4 million for the program.
“Members of Congress should Save America’s Taxpayers by eliminating this earmark,” the 2017 Pig Book said of last year’s funding.
Another fiscal watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, was upset with a provision requiring the Pentagon to only buy anchor and mooring chain that’s made in America. The bill contains a similar requirement to only buy U.S. or Canadian steel plate.
“With rare exceptions, the Pentagon should be allowed to set the specifications for what it wants and get the best product at the best price – wherever those products are made,” the group said. The expenses are part of a defense appropriations bill the House is still debating.
The spending bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education also has some member favorites.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, would prohibit the labor department from enforcing the minimum wage rule on recreational businesses like rafting and horseback riding companies that operate on federal land.
“This fix will ensure that outfitters and guides stay in business and continue to help families enjoy experiences on public lands,” Stewart spokesperson Daryn Frischknecht said.
The bill also includes provisions to prevent the National Labor Relations Board from having jurisdiction over tribal land, and the casinos that operate on them. NLRB authority over tribal casinos has been the subject of court battles in the past. The NLRB enforces federal labor laws that deal with workers’ ability to unionizing.
The issue of guns on Army Corps of Engineers land has come up because the corps manages hundreds of recreational sites.
A provision the House is considering would allow guns on “water development projects” managed by the Corps, which includes recreational areas. Under current law, guns are only allowed for hunting or fishing and must be unloaded for transport.
Contact: Anshu Siripurapu at 202-383-6009. Twitter: @anshusiripurapu