Speed Dealing

With 2019 running out, Congress crams a year’s worth of policy into one quick, gigantic legislative package.

Members of the House stand on the first day of the 116th Congress.
The swearing-in of the House of Representatives on Jan. 3 in Washington. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Lost in the coverage of 14-hour impeachment hearings over the last week has been a small but notable Washington news nugget: A year’s worth of policymaking is being muscled through Congress, with misbehaving printers serving as only temporary impediment.

The text of the nearly $1.4 trillion spending deal clocks in at a combined 2,300-plus pages. The House of Representatives expects to vote on it Tuesday, after it was released publicly at 5 o’clock on Monday afternoon.

The deal was broken into two “minibus” spending behemoths made up of four and eight appropriations bills, respectively, since President Donald Trump said in 2018 that he wouldn’t sign another 12-bill “omnibus” again. We are not sure that requiring two signatures, instead of one, for the exact same product is a meaningful good-government reform, but Trump is expected—expected—to accept the superficial difference and sign them into law, avoiding a government shutdown by the Friday-night deadline.

A multi-thousand-page end-of-year spending bill is never just a spending bill. As Congress’ last must-pass legislative vehicle of the year, when the public is distracted by the holidays or the impeachment of a sitting president, it’s also the “Christmas tree” to which unresolved legislative business from the year is often attached. There’s a lot of unresolved business this year as the divided Congress didn’t pass much of anything in terms of stand-alone legislation. A lot of that lingering work, therefore, will get thrown into a spending bill that’s supposed to pass through the House before most people can catch their breath.

While we dig deep into the text for the usual “fun surprises”—like, say, last year’s screwing-over of minor league baseball players—there’s already plenty of newsworthy material to go through.

The deal will eliminate—permanently, this time—three of Obamacare’s original funding mechanisms, including the “Cadillac” tax on generous employer-sponsored health care plans, as well as the medical device tax, which even very liberal politicians have opposed if medical device–makers were concentrated in the areas they represented.

If you weren’t quite certain about whether the health care industry has power over Congress, though, consider which other year-end item was left out of the bill despite a strong bipartisan push from leading committee chairs and ranking members in both chambers, as well as the president of the United States: legislation to curtail “surprise” medical bills, a patient-friendly reform that doctors and hospitals have vociferously opposed and private equity–backed ER staffing companies have spent ungodly sums launching deceptive ads against. The question could come up again in the spring; the current deal includes a set of short-term extensions for other expiring health provisions, which creates another must-pass vehicle in May 2020, to which legislation about surprise billing and prescription drugs could be attached. But those who had been pushing to include surprise billing legislation in this package see the omission as a killing of the effort.

That gross little bit of business aside, the deal will grant the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health $25 million to research gun violence, a significant increase over the sum of zero dollars that has been appropriated to public health authorities for that purpose in the last 20 years. It will also include the CREATES Act, legislation that’s been kicked around for years that would help generic drug–makers secure the appropriate samples they need for testing.

And in a wicked assault on cool teens, the bill will raise the purchasing age for tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21 years old. How did this get in there? Well, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was one of the senators to introduce the legislation earlier this year. Why is this something McConnell cares about? Unclear.

There’s also the matter of the border wall. At this time last year, the country was about to plunge into the lengthiest government shutdown in history because Trump couldn’t get the $5 billion he wanted in wall funding. He’s still not getting it, however, and will receive the same $1.375 billion he was appropriated earlier this year. Republicans say, though, that the president will have greater flexibility on where new wall can be built—and importantly, they preserved the president’s ability to transfer money from other accounts toward wall construction. Democrats did, however, defeat a Republican push to “backfill” money that the president already took from elsewhere for border wall construction.

Elsewhere, the bill secures $425 million in election security grants, a 3.1 percent pay increase for federal employees, and $7.6 billion for the 2020 census. It also reauthorizes the Export-Import Bank and includes a legislative fix for coal miners’ pensions.

We haven’t even gone through the ominously titled “DIVISION P: OTHER MATTER” section yet.

The items in this spending bill all come on top of two other major moves Congress has made in the last week: a deal on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which the House will pass on Thursday, and another agreement on the National Defense Authorization Act—which provides parental leave for federal workers and creates the Space Force—which the House passed last week and the Senate is due to pass this week. In the last week, bicameral policymaking has spiked from zero to a pace that’s impossible to keep up with, especially as people, and members of Congress, are winding down for the year. It’s not entirely a coincidence.

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