House Appropriations "Minibus" Bill Stuffed With Problematic Policies, Overspending

COMMENTARY Budget and Spending

House Appropriations "Minibus" Bill Stuffed With Problematic Policies, Overspending

Jul 22, 2020 17 min read

Commentary By

Daren Bakst
Leslie Ford
Katie Tubb
The practice of voting on huge spending packages, common in both chambers for years, sacrifices transparency and accountability for the sake of political convenience. yorkfoto/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The bill’s text—produced on July 16—is a staggering 689 pages long, meaning that no representative’s office has had the time to properly vet it before the vote.

On spending, regulations, foreign policy, and the national safety net, the House “minibus” package requires extensive fixes.

If the House passes the bill as is, the Senate should steadfastly oppose the myriad divisive policy riders that it contains.

The House is expected to vote later this week on H.R. 7608, a “minibus” bill that covers fiscal year 2021 spending for the departments of Agriculture, Interior, State, Veterans Affairs, and more. That covers four of the 12 spending bills that fund the federal government.

The bill’s text—produced on July 16—is a staggering 689 pages long, meaning that no representative’s office has had the time to properly vet it before the vote.

The practice of voting on huge spending packages, common in both chambers for years, sacrifices transparency and accountability for the sake of political convenience.

While any such legislative package is bound to contain flaws, this one is brimming with mistakes and ideological overreach on issues such as abortion, foreign policy, and welfare, and adds to our already skyrocketing national debt.

Experts from The Heritage Foundation have highlighted a number of policy concerns that the House should address.

Emergency Spending

The “minibus” package contains more than $37.5 billion in “emergency”-designated spending. Much of this spending is unjustified.

Rather, it continues the use of the emergency spending designation to avert Budget Control Act spending caps for fiscal 2021.

The Department of State/foreign operations bill provides $10 billion in emergency funds which, according to the House Appropriations Committee, would be used for global coronavirus preparedness, response, and relief.

However, the bill designates only $2.5 billion of the funds directly to health programs. The bulk of the spending would go toward diplomatic programs, operating expenses, development programs, international disaster assistance, economic support, migration and refugee assistance, and the United Nations.

The State Department should be working toward ensuring the health and safety of Americans abroad as the world continues to seek treatments and a vaccine for the coronavirus.

However, even of the $2.5 billion designated for global health programs, $800 million is being diverted to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, not the coronavirus. Much of the other funding is simply being used to expand the base operations budgets of various State Department programs.

The Interior and Environment bill adds $15 billion in emergency funding for infrastructure projects for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Indian Health Service. Of that, $13 billion would go directly to the EPA for infrastructure grants.

As with the State Department emergency funding, this money is not intended to fight the coronavirus or any other true emergency. It would be used to expand functions of the EPA that should be done within the existing agency budget, if at all. Much of the money would be spent in the form of grants to states for drinking water infrastructure, which should be addressed at the local, rather than federal, level.

Finally, the bill provides $12.5 billion in emergency appropriations to the Department of Veterans Affairs to cover rising health care costs.

Providing quality health care (whether public or private) to our nation’s veterans is of the utmost importance. However, doing so by ignoring budget caps and fiscal responsibility sets a dangerous precedent.

Congress must prioritize spending on a case-by-case basis to keep programs under control. Offsets, whether they come from within VA programs or other federal programs, should be the bare minimum requirement for new spending initiatives.

In 2019, a total of $25.4 billion in emergency appropriations were enacted. This “minibus” alone would represent a 48% increase above that number.

If all of the money was for fighting the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps it would be justified, but that’s not the case. Most of it is simply being used to expand existing government programs without retaining any sense of fiscal responsibility.

The House is headed down a dangerous path and should reexamine the emergency provisions of this bill.

Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration

The House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee has jurisdiction over funding one of the largest safety net programs; namely, food stamps.

The goal of this program is to help millions of low-income Americans buy food. The committee used the appropriations bill to undermine commonsense reforms advanced by the Trump administration to safeguard the program.

Section 733 of the appropriations bill seeks to permanently prohibit implementation of the administration’s Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents rule. This rule strengthened food stamp work requirements that only apply to work-capable individuals ages 18 to 49 who do not have children or other dependents in the home.

During a recession, this work requirement rule will understandably not be implemented for this work-capable population. It’s only applicable when the state unemployment rate is below a 6% average for the most recent 24-month period. Inasmuch as the June unemployment rate was 11.1%, no state will meet the unemployment threshold soon.

Moreover, even if there hadn’t been a COVID-19 economic downturn, the number of work-capable individuals without dependents is a small fraction of the overall food stamp pool—about 688,000 among nearly 40 million food stamp beneficiaries.

The bill would also permanently ban the Department of Agriculture’s Standard Utility Allowance rule in Section 734. That rule eliminates a loophole known as “Heat and Eat.”  

The way the loophole works is a bit convoluted. The amount of food stamps a household receives is based on its “countable” income (income minus certain deductions). State governments can game the system by sending households a tiny amount of money through a low-income energy assistance program, which makes the household eligible for more food stamps.

The administration’s reform to stop this abuse was commonsense, and should remain in place.

Finally, the House committee’s report language makes a “strong” recommendation against the administration’s proposed rule called Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility. The rule would close a loophole that allows individuals to bypass food stamp eligibility rules. Current rules still allow millionaires to get food stamps.

When Congress does pass a bicameral appropriations package, it should ensure that these provisions are not included. Instead, Congress should codify the president’s reforms and go beyond them to pursue statutorily fixing these serious issues that threaten the long-term integrity of the food stamp program.

Creating a Carve-Out Instead of Solving FDA Overreach

The House spending bill would exempt wine grapes, hops, pulse crops, and almonds from the Obama administration’s Food and Drug Administration produce safety rule. The rule was deeply flawed and ignored the plain language of the Food Safety Modernization Act that it was implementing. 

The law directs the FDA to regulate fruits and vegetables based on risk, but the FDA instead developed a rule that ignored the risk-based requirements of the law. Rather than directing the FDA to fix this flawed rule, Section 746 of the House spending bill would create special carve-outs for certain commodities. 

That ignores the problems with the rule as it affects other commodities, and it creates a situation where organizations representing specific commodities have to lobby Congress for exemptions from coverage under a rule that they shouldn’t be subject to in the first place. 

Interior and Environment

Federal bloat: The House bill in general rejects measures to reduce the size and scope of government.

For example, the House proposal consistently maintains or increases spending on EPA programs where the president’s budget largely reflected measures proposed to reduce or eliminate programs in the EPA that are better left to states, communities, and private individuals.

The bill would also block healthy government reform by prohibiting any funds from being used to relocate, close, or consolidate any EPA office, laboratory, or facility.

It also includes measures that would increase costs for American taxpayers on infrastructure projects, such as the requirement in Section 421 that all of the iron and steel work in projects using Safe Water Drinking Act grants be produced in the U.S.

Cognitive dissonance on federal lands: The bill makes refreshing efforts to fund maintenance on federal lands and national parks. The National Park Service alone holds a backlog of $11.9 billion in deferred maintenance, and Congress historically has neglected prioritizing those projects.

However, the bill neglects to address one of the troublesome roots feeding the systemic maintenance issue; namely, the federal government’s preference for buying new acreage, rather than stewarding what it already has.

The primary tool for federal land purchases is the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The bill presumes Congress will pass the Great American Outdoors Act, which, among other things, reprograms the Land and Water Conservation Fund as a mandatory spending program of $900 million annually. Doing so delegates away Congress’ power of the purse to bureaucrats at the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Forest Service.

Importantly, it appears that Congress has little ability to limit how much of the annual $900 million a presidential administration can spend. At least under the current structure as an appropriated program, Congress must debate which projects to support and how much to appropriate, and retains the option to later rescind certain funds.

Nevertheless, the appropriations bill lays the groundwork for implementation of the Land and Water Conservation Fund as a mandatory spending program and reinforces the preference to purchase an ever-growing list of lands rather than to save.

For example, Section 425 states: “The Federal land acquisition project lists required by each Agency … shall total for each agency no less than 150 percent of the amount enacted for that agency for the previous fiscal year.”

While the House’s attention to maintenance needs on federal lands is encouraging, one must wonder whether this newfound fervor will outlast the Land and Water Conservation Fund as a new permanent and mandatory spending program operating largely beyond the hands of Congress.

Instead, Congress should be going in the opposite direction and reducing federal land ownership.

The House spending bill also includes policy riders that would block EPA efforts to respect both the rule of law and principles of federalism, protect the environment, ensure the use of sound science, and increase transparency in government. 

Some of those riders would:

Require the EPA to abuse “ancillary” benefits. One of the most egregious abuses in the Obama administration’s EPA was promulgating its “mercury” rule without the agency being able to justify the purpose of the rule (i.e., reducing mercury and other hazardous air pollutant emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants). The costs were as much as 2,400 times greater than the direct benefits.

Instead, the agency justified the rule based on questionable ancillary (secondary) benefits from reducing particulate matter, even though particulate matter had nothing to do with the purpose of the rule.

To its credit, the Trump administration acted and finalized a rule that wouldn’t allow this type of regulatory abuse. Buried within the massive House spending bill is language that would undo this new rule and require the EPA to bless the Obama administration’s games with its mercury rule. (See page 94).

Prohibit funding for the EPA rule requiring states to properly comply with the Clean Water Act. Under the Clean Water Act, states can use the Section 401 certification process to ensure that state water quality will not be harmed by federally permitted activities.

But what happens when states abuse this process to address issues that have nothing to do with water quality? What happens when issues not related to water quality delay critical projects?  That has become a major problem. 

Last month, the EPA released a final rule that would help to better clarify the Section 401 process and eliminate some of those abuses.

Under Section 440 of the House spending bill, the EPA would be prohibited from using funds to finalize, implement, or enforce what was the Section 401 proposed rule. Congress would allow states to continue blocking projects under the Clean Water Act even if the reasons have nothing to do with water quality.

Block efforts to promote transparency at the EPA. It’s quite disturbing how some on the left want to ensure that the public doesn’t have proper information to evaluate the science used by the EPA.

The Trump administration has proposed a rule that would improve transparencySection 447 of the spending bill would block funding for those efforts that would promote open government and sound science.

Attempt to defend the infamous Obama “WOTUS” Rule. Should the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers be able to regulate almost any water they want, including even regulating what most people would consider to be dry land?

That’s what the Obama “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rulewould have done. 

The Trump administration got rid of that rule and finalized a rule that did something different when it comes to defining “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. It tried to follow the law. 

The House report (page 99) accompanying the spending bill includes language requiring the EPA to develop reports answering leading questions, with the apparent assumption the answers would make the Obama rule look better.

It would do this by conveniently ignoring the rule of law, property rights, the state role in water protection under the Clean Water Act, and the vagueness problems that have undermined the Clean Water Act.

Block energy regulation reforms. Another provision in the bill would prevent the EPA from finalizing the Trump administration’s right-sizing of the Obama-era standards that regulate oil and gas methane emissions.

The U.S. has become the world’s leading oil and natural gas producer, providing affordable, reliable power to families and businesses. Resource extraction has created jobs across the country, and cheap natural gas is a critical reason why many energy-intensive manufacturers have chosen the U.S. as home.

The Obama administration’s methane regulations were a costly solution in search of a problem. Producers have an incentive to capture and sell methane, the main component in natural gas, because it has economic value, yielding low-cost energy for consumers and reducing the U.S. allies’ dependence on Russian gas.

Even the Obama administration’s EPA reported that methane emissions from the industry decreased despite the fact that energy production has skyrocketed.

State Department and Foreign Operations

The State Department, foreign operations, and related programs appropriations bill passed by the House Appropriations Committee have several provisions that conservatives should be concerned about.

Overall, the level of appropriations is $8.5 billion higher than for fiscal 2020, an increase of nearly 15%. In addition, the bill continues funding normal activities through Overseas Contingency Operations, rather than through the normal funding accounts—a mechanism originally set up to avoid spending constraints.

With federal government spending at record, unsustainable levels, such an increase cannot be justified. Instead, appropriators should be seeking to better allocate existing resources.

In addition, there are numerous parts of the bill that would change policy to the detriment of U.S. interests, including:

Overriding the 25% cap on U.N. peacekeeping. Current law enacted in 1994 under then-President Bill Clinton restricts U.S. payments for U.N. peacekeeping to 25 percent of the total budget. The U.N., however, charges the U.S. nearly 28% of the peacekeeping budget.

By permitting payment of “United States assessed contributions up to the amount specified in the Annex accompanying United Nations General Assembly document A/73/350/Add.1,” the House bill would override current law.

That would remove pressure on the U.N. to reduce U.S. peacekeeping assessment to 25%.

Prohibiting U.S. withholding to the U.N. organizations, except those from which the United States has withdrawn. Currently, the U.S. withholds funding to the U.N. organizations for a number of reasons, including withholding 15% of funding if the secretary of state reports that the organization is not meeting legislatively specified transparency and accountability standards.

The House bill would override those provisions and mandate full payment of U.S. assessments to U.N. organizations.

Indeed, in the case of U.N. transparency and accountability, it would maintain the reporting requirement but eliminate the withholding. Withholding is a key point of leverage to press for reforms or, if necessary, to ensure that U.S. taxpayer funds do not support activities counter to the national interest. It must remain an option.

Restoring U.S. funding to the Human Rights Council and U.N. Relief and Works Agency: Unless the secretary of state reports to Congress that funding does not support the national interest, funding will be renewed.

The flaws of the Human Rights Council and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency are well-established. Congress should put the onus on the organizations to reform and earn U.S. funding.

Allowing funding to support International Criminal Court situations and cases: The bill would prohibit funding for the International Criminal Court investigation of Americans and allies, but allows “for technical assistance, training, assistance for victims, protection of witnesses, and law enforcement support related to international investigations, apprehensions, prosecutions, and adjudications of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.”

That loophole sends at best mixed signals to an organization that is bent on investigating Americans even though the U.S. has never joined the court, nor acknowledged any jurisdiction over Americans. 

Mandating $200 million for the World Health Organization:Regardless of what Congress thinks of the president’s decisions regarding the World Health Organization, it’s clear that the organization badly mishandled the COVID-19 response, particularly its willingness to unquestioningly echo statements and assertions from Beijing.

The U.S. needs to work with other member states to try to reform the WHO or, if that proves unachievable, to forge an alternative mechanism to detect and respond to international pandemics.

Providing funding in this way risks sending the message that the U.S. is not determined to reform this flawed institution.

Limiting State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development personnel and bureaucratic adjustments: The bill sets an arbitrary staffing level far higher than the average of the past two decades and bars the secretary of state from acting to “downsize, downgrade, consolidate, close, move, or relocate the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.”

Both unreasonably limit the secretary of state’s ability to adjust the department to meet current needs and priorities. 

Authorizing U.S. membership in, and appropriating funding for, the U.N. World Tourism Organization: The U.S. decided to withdraw from the World Tourism Organization in 1995 after conducting a “comprehensive interagency assessment of U.S. membership in all of the international organizations to which it makes assessed contributions” and concluding that U.S. membership in it was among three organizations in which U.S. membership was least defensible. 

American taxpayers deserve better than to have their money squandered again on this unnecessary organization.

Removing protections for life: Unsurprisingly, House Democrats have moved to undo significant Trump administration pro-life policy achievements.

Specifically, the committee-reported bill contains a one-two punch gutting “the Mexico City Policy,” which ensures that American taxpayers do not fund international organizations that perform and promote abortion overseas.

The Mexico City Policy was first announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. Since then, the policy has been enforced by every Republican president and suspended by every Democratic president shortly after inauguration.

Several months after reinstating the policy after taking office, President Donald Trump expanded the policy—now known as “the Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance Policy”—to apply to even more funding streams than the original policy.

Not only does the House bill contain language specifying that none of the funds appropriated under the bill can be used to enact the policy, it also inserts language from the Global Health, Empowerment and Rights (Global HER) Act, which contains language that would permanently repeal the Mexico City Policy.

Additionally, the bill increases funding to the United Nations Population Fund and makes an underhanded attempt to weaken the administration’s ability to ensure that U.S. dollars do not support coercive family-planning practices abroad. 

In 2017, the Trump administration used its authority under the Kemp-Kasten Amendment to withhold funding for the United Nations Population Fund due to the organization’s complicity in violating the rights of Chinese women and men by aiding the Chinese government’s draconian coercive population-control policies.

First enacted in 1985 and included in every foreign appropriations bill since, the Kemp-Kasten Amendment authorizes the president to withhold federal funding from any organization that “supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.”

Like the Mexico City Policy, the Kemp-Kasten Amendment has been invoked—or not—along administration party lines. In addition to funding the U.N. Population Fund despite the Trump administration’s determination to the contrary, the bill contains language that would weaken the administration’s ability to invoke Kemp-Kasten in the first place.

Conclusion: On spending, regulations, foreign policy, and the national safety net, the House “minibus” package requires extensive fixes. If the House passes the bill as is, the Senate should steadfastly oppose the myriad divisive policy riders that it contains.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal