Washington Wednesday: Omnibus winners and losers

MARY REICHARD, HOST: From member-supported WORLD Radio, this is The World and Everything in It for Wednesday, March 28th. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: And I’m Kent Covington and today is Washington Wednesday.

$1.3 trillion … that’s the price tag on a new spending bill Congress sent to President Trump’s desk last Friday. He expressed misgivings about it on Twitter, but then promptly signed it, averting a government shutdown.

The bill funds the government through the end of the fiscal year and gives the government more to spend. What little spending restraint Washington had shown in recent years, lawmakers decidedly cast aside last week.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer declared:

SCHUMER: This spending agreement brings the era of austerity to an unceremonious end, and represents one the most significant investments in the middle class in recent history. 

Significant indeed. Democrats pushed for and received an increase of $63 billion for discretionary domestic spending. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney noted President Trump also wanted some of that.

MULVANEY: It funds opioids. It funds school safety. It’s a tremendous increase in workforce development, something that doesn’t get a lot of attention, but this administration has been pushing since we got here. It actually starts taking a look at funding infrastructure. 

It also includes some funding for a border wall, but not nearly what the president wanted. He asked for $25 billion for the wall but he got a small fraction of that — about 1.6 billion, with much of that going to repair or fortify existing barriers and only $640 million for new fencing.

But the big win, according to many Republicans is a sizable boost in defense spending. GOP lawmakers got an additional $80 billion for the Pentagon.

While both sides got plenty of what they wanted, all of that new spending will once again be charged to the national credit card. The bill is projected to add another $300 billion to the deficit over two years.

Many Republicans, like Arizona Congresswoman Martha McSally—a former Air Force pilot—said the bill was all about ending military budget cuts.

MCSALLY: We had to stop the bleeding and give them the resources they need to keep us safe. That was this is about. There’s a bunch of other stinky stuff in that. And just like the president, who signed it into law, I had to hold my nose and vote for it — laser focused on the troops. 

The “stinky stuff” McSally’s referring to a lot of goodies for special interests. And many of them have nothing to do with funding the government.

Just a few examples: a wage carveout for minor league baseball, exempting teams from federal minimum wage requirements, a pay raise for jurors on federal grand juries, and a measure barring restaurant owners from pooling employee tips.

A more notable provision in bill that is unrelated to government funding is a so-called FixNICS measure, which helps to strengthen background checks for gun purchases.

And here to help us dig further into what’s in this 2,300-page bill and what it means is Republican political strategist Matt Mackowiak.

And Matt, first of all, break this down for us: politically speaking, who won with this spending bill? Who were the winners here?

MATT MACKOWIAK, GUEST: Well, it’s a mixed picture, right? I think the first thing you have to say is it’s a very significant… military spending increase. The other winner, I guess, is the sort of domestic government programs which saw an increase as well…

COVINGTON: Matt, I wanted to have you on the program to talk about this, because where we see the most friction is on the Republican side. Democrats were fairly united at least on the direction here. They wanted to get as much out of this deal as they could for their spending priorities … but on the Republican side is where we see the fault lines between those willing to spend big as long as it funds the military … vs those who say we simply can’t spend this way. But it seems clear that, politically, the latter group were the losers here — the stalwart fiscal hawks. … But let me ask you — for 8 years throughout the Obama administration, we heard a lot of noise from Republicans about deficit spending, saying it’s gotta stop. But not nearly as much now. So what changed?  

MACKOWIAK: Yeah, it’s a great question. It’s easy to oppose the other party when you’re in the minority. And… Republicans… basically did oppose Obama at every step… I think Republicans are rhetorically in favor of being fiscally conservative, but, ya know, when you’re in control and you’re in power, it’s hard to say no… but, yeah, look. Again, it’s a great question, I don’t have a great answer. I think for a lot of voters out there that are concerned about trillion dollar deficits and a $20 trillion national debt, now up to $21 trillion…  there’s not a lot of hope in the near term. I guess the one thing I can say is I think the president was deeply frustrated that he felt like he had no choice but to sign this bill. And, as he said at his closing press conference after he signed the bill, he’s not going to do this again… And we’ll see if he holds to that. They’re going to have another spending fight in September… soit’s going to take quite a bit more courage and determination on the behalf of both the White House and the Congressional Republicans to not be in this position again in the next 6, 9 months.

COVINGTON: Well let me ask you this Matt, again looking at this politically, is the Republican party under President Trump changing? Are we seeing a shift and a broader embrace of populism and bigger government?

MACKOWIAK: I don’t think so… I don’t doubt that Republican voters have moved in more of a populist direction under Trump… particularly on issues like trade and immigration. I don’t necessarily know that the omnibus tells us that the Republican party is not going to be fiscally conservative, particularly in primary elections around the country. I mean, if you look at sort of the conservative movement, I mean, they were roundly critical of this omnibus… I mean, ideally, again, you would have had a better deal. I just think you had to have the Democratic votes to get it done. It was an election year, they couldn’t risk a government shutdown, and they really wanted this increase in defense spending… There was really no way to take a shutdown off the table and also increase defense spending without cutting a deal with Democrats on the domestic side, and that’s why you have the significant cost of the deficit.

COVINGTON: Now, a few minutes ago, we mentioned some of the things that are tucked into this bill like the minimum wage exception for minor league baseball. Explain the process of how that happens. How do all these little special interest things get tucked into a bill like this?

MACKOWIAK: …That’s another thing that I think was pretty offensive to a lot of members. I mean, your average member of Congress… had almost nothing to do with this bill… Obviously there’s furious lobbying… This is sort of the last train leaving the station in DC this year until the lame duck, and the lame duck is always very unpredictable because it depends a lot on what happens in the election and no one can… foresee that. So… there would be some ridiculous things in there. But, ya know, the bill gets voted up or down. You don’t get a chance to strike different provisions you don’t like. It’s not an open committee process, it’s not a committee markup, there aren’t amendments on the floor… And it’s done that way because they know the closer they are to the deadline, the more likely that members are going to relent and ultimately vote for something they know they don’t like.

COVINGTON: Right. So in simple terms, explain that process. Explain how something like banning pooling tips at restaurants, how does — on a ground level, how does that make its way into the bill. What happens? Who comes to who?

MACKOWIAK: It obviously depends a lot on the particular provision you’re talking about. But generally it could be a trade association that says, hey, listen, this is our top priority. Here’s why this is good public policy. Whatever the provision is… You look at the background check bill that Cornyn, Senator John Cornyn, the number two Republican in the majority got through. The so-called FixNICS bill that closes loopholes in the background check system. That bill had 78 sponsors but Democrats were not allowing it to get a vote because they wanted to put amendments on banning assault weapons onto the bill. So it’s a hard question to answer…

Matt, some are saying President Trump lost his best opportunity here to get funding for the border wall. What do you say?

MACKOWIAK: He got a down paymentThe Democrats have said that they put the full border wall funding request on the table and that’s not true. They put an authorization for $25 billion on the table. Not the appropriation. Soit’s like my parents authorizing me to go buy a Porsche. If I don’t have the money to do it, I’m not buying a Porsche. And so they never put the appropriation on the table… Now, to the question of leverage. Yeah, the president had some leverage in this fight. I don’t think he had as much, maybe, as his defenders and supporters thought he did. He probably could have gotten slightly more money than he got, but… look, this is an election year. They couldn’t risk shutting down the government. This was always going to be a bad deal. They had to get it behind them…

COVINGTON: Alright, Matt, thanks a lot for your time and for your insight, my friend. We appreciate it.

MACKOWIAK: My pleasure. Take care. See ya.

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) President Donald Trump arrives in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, March 23, 2018, to speak about the $1.3 trillion spending bill which he signed earlier in the day.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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