The hidden pork inside the "COVID-19" bill.

The U.S. government just signed onto $2.3 trillion of spending.
Isaac Saul Dec 22, 2020
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This read: 8 minutes.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Photo: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America

Yesterday, Congress passed a spending package worth $2.3 trillion.

The amount of money alone is tough to fathom — and I don’t mean that as an exaggeration. It’s actually tough to wrap your head around. I’m fond of this analogy in time that illustrates just how different the wealth is between millionaires and billionaires: one million seconds is 11 days. One billion seconds is 31.7 years (or 11,574 days). The difference between one billion dollars and one million dollars is the same as the difference between 11 days and 31.7 years! One trillion seconds, though, is 11.5 million days — which is 31,709 years.

When thinking about those numbers, it’s remarkable to consider that Congress just signed off on a bill with $2.3 trillion of spending. It’s even more remarkable when you consider that the bill was over 5,593 pages long (with another 2,000 pages of explanatory notes), the longest bill ever, and was released just before 2 p.m. Eastern. It was then voted on just a few hours later. The implication here is obvious: most of Congress didn’t read the bill, and not a soul read it in full. It’s not possible. The entire Harry Potter series is 4,224 pages long — this bill, without the explanatory notes, is over 1,000 pages longer than that.

This reality drew bipartisan ire. “Members of Congress have not read this bill,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) tweeted. “It’s over 5,000 pages, arrived at 2pm today, and we are told to expect a vote on it in 2 hours. This isn’t governance. It’s hostage-taking. And by the way, it’s not just members who need to see the bill ahead of time - YOU do. The PUBLIC needs to see these bills with enough time to contact their rep to let them know how they feel.”

Rep. Justin Amash, whose ideology is about as far from Ocasio-Cortez’s as you can imagine, said: “They passed 5,593 pages they didn’t read. America, stop letting this happen. Don’t vote for anyone who voted for this. It’s not okay. Representative government is important. Too many people have come to accept oligarchy. This doesn’t end well. Had congressional leaders put a bill on the floor months ago, open to deliberation and amendment—something not done in either house of Congress—we could have provided substantive, timely, and recurring direct cash relief to the people instead of a towering pillar of corporatism.”

They’re both right. What does it mean when our legislators are passing laws they haven’t even read?

The way this happens in today’s Congress is infuriating. Not only did just four Congressional leaders and their aides negotiate, draft and then force this COVID-19 bill down the throats of their members with little inclusion of anyone else, they also tied it to the 2021 fiscal year omnibus appropriations bill. In case you’re not familiar, as most Americans aren’t, let me explain that: an “omnibus” bill is legislation that ties multiple bills together, often when legislators can’t come to an agreement ona single appropriations bill. Our legislative spending is designed to be divided up into 12 separate appropriations bills covering 12 different kinds of programs and agencies, as listed on the U.S. Senate website:

Agriculture, Commerce/Justice/State, Defense, District of Columbia, Energy and Water, Foreign Operations, Interior, Labor/Health and Human Services/Education, Legislative Branch, Military Construction, Transportation, Treasury/Postal Service, and Veterans' Affairs/Housing and Urban Development.

While omnibus bills are common, in normal times, Congress would be voting on and passing these bills individually. This omnibus bill ties nearly all of these appropriation bills into one.

In other words: the 2021 omnibus appropriations bill ties together the typical spending bills Congress should be voting on individually, then ties that gigantic omnibus bill to a $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill, then forces Congress to vote on both in a single vote just hours after the thousands of pages are released to them. If this sounds completely absurd and unbelievable — that’s because it is.

Speaking of bipartisan ire: the last time a bill like this was passed was in 2018, and President Donald Trump pledged never to sign such a large bill on such short notice again. “I will never sign another bill like this again,” he said in 2018, after Congressional leaders negotiated, drafted and then released a $1.4 trillion spending bill without including members of Congress. “I’m not going to do it again. Nobody read it. It’s only hours old. Some people don’t even know what is in—$1.3 trillion—it’s the second largest ever.”

And for a little while, Congress seemed to listen. But now we’re back to this. Yesterday’s bill passed the Senate by a 92-6 vote and the House by a 359-53 vote, meaning Trump couldn’t stop it with a veto if he wanted to.

So while most of America thinks we got a COVID-19 relief bill yesterday, the reality is we just rubber-stamped trillions of dollars for who-knows-what. Fortunately, reporters and citizens across the country are actually reading the bill — which you can view here. Many have taken to calling out what’s inside the bill, which I’ve been tracking and collecting to share with Tangle readers.

As I just explained, it is important to remember that there are really two bills — or over a dozen, depending on how you look at it — inside this package. For instance, some reporters said things like “The new COVID relief bill contains $500,000,000 for Israel.” This is… kind of true. Israel will receive hundreds of millions of dollars across various parts of the omnibus spending bill, including from the International Security Assistance section from the State Department. It’d be more accurate to say “Israel got hundreds of millions of dollars in the appropriation bills inside the omnibus spending bill that was tied to the COVID-19 relief bill.” But I understand that’s not nearly as punchy a tweet.

I’m not listing all these things to say whether each individual program is bad or good. As I wrote yesterday, I would have voted for this bill if I were in Congress, because millions of Americans desperately need what’s inside it — and this kind of government response is necessary in the moment we’re living in. Instead, I’m listing some of the things inside to illustrate how many different kinds of legislative spending, across so many different parts of American and international life, were just made into law. And most importantly, to make it crystal clear that this bill is not just a “COVID-19” relief bill.

So what’s in this gigantic package? A bunch of stuff!

The bill establishes two new Smithsonian museums, including the National Museum of the American Latino. It requires studies to be conducted on whether artificial intelligence can be used to “identify, remove or take any other appropriate action” against disinformation campaigns used to influence U.S. elections. It includes a long-sought Tibetan human rights bill, including the establishment of a consulate and language around who determines the next reincarnated Dalai Lama.

There is $10 million of funding for “gender programs” supporting women’s rights in Pakistan. There is an extension for qualified Liberian immigrants to apply for green cards. There is language that would make illegally streaming for commercial profit a felony offense and that creates a small-claims adjudication system within the U.S. copyright office. The bill restores Pell grants for incarcerated students and doubles the health care budget…(wait for it)... for members of Congress.

It’s also one of the most expansive climate change and energy bills ever passed in American history. It lays the groundwork for a Climate Security Advisory Council and authorizes billions of dollars for research and development into clean energy. It cuts the use of hydrofluorocarbons (chemicals in air conditioners and refrigerators) to meet stricter emission standards and reauthorizes the Environmental Protection Agency to curb emissions from diesel engines. It even includes symbolic language that the Energy Department should fund research into powering the U.S. with 100% “clean, renewable, or zero-emission energy sources.”

It approves another $1.375 billion to fund Trump’s border wall across the southwestern United States. It puts aside money to study the 1908 Springfield Race Riot. It has a lengthy section on the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2020, which was pushed through by Kentucky’s Congressional delegation to improve medical and safety standards in horse racing. It allocates $193 million to help foreign workers fighting HIV and AIDS to buy motor vehicles. It has funding for programs to discourage teenagers from using alcohol or having sex. It bans the U.S. Postal Service from delivering e-cigarettes.

Unlike the last bill, this one does not allow banks to grab the $600 direct payments from citizens to pay off their existing debt. And it finally makes Marshall Islanders (a U.S. territory) eligible for Medicaid. The bill provides $7 billion in funding for broadband internet expansion and infrastructure, including a $50-per-month emergency broadband benefit for workers laid off or furloughed during the pandemic. It also puts aside $1.9 billion to remove Huawei and ZTE equipment — two Chinese companies deemed national security threats — from U.S. networks.

W-2 workers with at least $5,000 in 1099 income will now get $100 added to their unemployment benefits on top of the $300 federal unemployment top-off, something many in the music industry fought for. There is language protecting bankruptcy filers from utility shut-offs and language that makes certain small businesses ineligible for PPP loans if they spend more than $1 million on lobbying. There is also a whole new slate of verification systems for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which means paperwork must be tracked down and sent to the government in order to receive benefits.

Congress gave the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency $93 million more than it requested in 2021 for cyber operations, according to the Federal News Network, but ignored pleas to add funding to the Technology Modernization Fund. The bill also includes a 3% pay raise for members of the military and a 1% pay raise for civilian employees. The package has $40 million for the Kennedy Center, commissions a task force to educate consumers about not storing portable fuel containers near open flames, has $8 million to support Joe Biden’s presidential transition, and includes direct funding for the U.S. Senate daycare center.

The package ends surprise medical billing and ensures patients will no longer have to pay huge bills to out-of-network specialists, but it also creates an army of independent mediators to settle disputes between insurers and health care providers, a win for powerful hospital and physician lobbying groups. The package funds “an additional Virginia-class attack submarine, 17 more F-35 jet fighters than were requested, and eight P8A Poseidon sub-hunting planes,” according to Matthew Dickerson. It also defends pro-life policies like the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits appropriated funds from going toward abortions.

Also included in the package is a 400-page water resources bill that targets $10 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers to address flood control and coastal projects. There’re tax breaks for brewers, wineries and distilleries and there’s the “Three Martini Lunch” tax break, which will allow corporations and executives to write off entire meals from their taxes. The estimated cost of the return of this provision is $6 billion, though the president and Congress pitched it as an incentive for desperately needed spending at restaurants. There’s even language about the Open Technology Fund, a hotly contested nonprofit funded by the federal government that helps millions of Chinese and Iranian citizens gain access to the internet.

The bill repeals nine criminal laws — like transporting alligator grass or water chestnut plants across state lines — that are rarely ever enforced. It also repeals a law that could be used to imprison people for fraudulently using the Smokey the Bear emblem.

As you can tell, this spending package is packed. Most of the country, most reporters and most members of Congress are still reading this thing piecemeal. The above list includes all the details I could find that have actually been reported on, with language from the legislation, and that are already out there in the world as of 11 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Given the size of the bill and the number of people actually reading it, there’s going to be plenty more in here that I missed and that others are sure to find.

But one thing is for sure: this is more than just a “COVID-19 bill.” And there’s a lot more in here that hundreds of members of Congress stamped to become law without even reading.


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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