Congress sleds through spending, tax bills with something for everyone

Bashon Mann and his children sled down a hill at the Capitol as snow falls in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. A provision in a spending bill that Congress will vote on this week would lift a ban on sledding on the Capitol grounds.
Bashon Mann and his children sled down a hill at the Capitol as snow falls in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. A provision in a spending bill that Congress will vote on this week would lift a ban on sledding on the Capitol grounds. AP

From the frivolous to the serious, there’s something for everyone in the massive $1.1 trillion government spending bill and a separate $680 billion tax extenders package that Congress is expected to vote on this week.

Christmas could come a few days early for sledding enthusiasts in Washington, D.C., thanks to language tucked into the 2,000-plus-page spending bill that would lift a ban on sledding on Capitol Hill. The provision dates back to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and an 1870s rule that the Capitol grounds and terraces not be “used as playgrounds.”

Sledders in the district committed acts of civil disobedience – and fun – last winter when they took to sled, discs, trays, or whatever they could find, and hurled themselves down the hill after snow storms.

The provision in the spending bill urges the Capitol Police not to enforce the no-sled zone.

“The Committee understands the need to maintain safety and order on the Capitol grounds and commends the Capitol Police for their effort,” read a staff report that accompanies the spending bill. “However, given the family-style neighborhood that the Capitol shares with the surrounding community, the Committee would instruct the Capitol Police to forebear enforcement…when encountering snow sledders on the grounds.”

Proving that everyone’s an art critic, lawmakers are apparently fed up with scrims – wraps placed around buildings to hide unsightly construction or renovation projects. The spending bill dictates that “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for scrims containing photographs of building facades during restoration or construction projects performed by the Architect of the Capitol.”

In the 233-page tax bill, Hollywood, the horse racing industry, and NASCAR are poised to receive some of the nearly 50 tax breaks that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi derided Wednesday.

“This tax extender bill is extraordinarily irresponsible,” Pelosi D-Calif., told reporters. “It ought to be rejected. It undermines tax reform, which every member says they want to see. It undermines the investment in our future and in jobs and in growth in our economy.”

She wasn’t alone. Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan fiscal watchdog group, said “This may be the season for generosity, but not fiscal lunacy.”

“The $680 billion giveaway that would come from this legislation is money that Congress has counted on all year to make its budget numbers work,” he said. “Now, Congress seems poised to enlarge the debt while violating both its own budget and pay-as-you-go rules.”

Still, the package is expected to pass with Democratic support in the House of Representatives and the Senate, despite Pelosi’s protests.

After weeks of wrangling – and after blowing a Dec. 11 deadline – House Republican and Democratic negotiators unveiled the spending bill and tax package late Tuesday that gives each party a little bit of what they wanted heading into the 2016 campaign year.

It would end a 40-year ban on crude oil exports from the United States, something Republicans demanded. It also includes clean water and climate change provisions that congressional Democrats and the White House strongly advocated.

“This is good legislation,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said of the spending bill. “This is truly the art of compromise. And when I say ‘compromise,’ it doesn’t mean anyone is doing away with any of the principles.”

Even the White House offered praise. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Obama will sign the spending bill when it reaches his desk because it “lives up to our values.”

Some contentious items that both parties wanted are notably absent from the spending measure. Left on the cutting room floor was language that would restrict President Barack Obama’s plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States – something that Republicans pressed for following last month’s deadly terrorist attacks in Paris.

Efforts by Pelosi and congressional Democrats to include a provision to lift a 1990s ban on federal funding for research in to gun violence – something vehemently opposed by Republicans – failed.

Also missing is language to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding in the wake of secretly-recorded videos that allegedly show a worker from the organization discussing the sale of fetal tissue. Democrats strongly opposed the Republican defunding effort.

Still, the bill and tax extenders package were sprinkled with enough fairy dust – items both sides wanted – to keep congressional lawmakers and state officials happy.

California ranchers won repeal of country of origin labels on beef and pork products, but failed to secure a wide-ranging water package addressing the state’s drought in the massive spending bill.

“On the whole, it’s worth voting for,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif.

Conservative Republicans successfully led a push to boost the budget for the National Institutes of Health by $2 billion – a billion more than requested by the Obama administration.

The $2 billion bump that made it into the omnibus bill would be the NIH’s biggest funding hike in more than a decade, bringing the institute’s total budget to $32 billion.

“In a very divisive political environment in Washington, D.C., we have Congress coming together to do the right thing for NIH research, and that’s a moment where you have to be proud because you don’t always have proud moments in the current political environment,” said Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received a 27 percent spending boost in a $1.1 trillion budget bill working its way through Congress this week.

Under the bill, the corps would receive nearly $6 billion for its civil works program, more than the president’s request of $4.7 billion. The bill contains more funding for construction projects to update aging inland waterway infrastructure, including locks and dams on the Mississippi River.

The measure also directs the Comptroller General to study the economic impact of inland ports on the river between St. Louis and Baton Rouge, La. The river is a vital passage for bulk shipments, especially grain, coal and petroleum products.

Mike Toohey, president and CEO of the Waterways Council, an advocacy group, said the extra $1.3 billion in funding “will help modernize our nation’s waterways infrastructure, facilitate exports, create jobs, make more efficient the transportation supply chain and increase American competitiveness in world markets.”

The spending bill also provides $64.3 million to operate and maintain the Armed Forces Retirement Home locations in Washington, D.C. and in Gulfport, Mississippi, which is “located on 47 acres of prime waterfront land on the Mississippi Sound,” according its public affairs office. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had the wrong first name for Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas