Politics & Policy

Five Bad Things in the New Spending Deal

The Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Surprise: Washington’s bipartisan compromise is expensive and features a lot of terrible policy.

Yesterday, members of Congress reached a $1.4 trillion deal to fund the government through September of next year. They have to finalize the details and formally pass the various bills constituting the agreement by midnight Friday, when current funding expires.

Like all bipartisan compromises, the arrangement borrows money from future generations to give both sides what they want today, and contains a lot of bad policy to boot. Here are five of the worst details.

1. More spending all around.

Raises for federal workers! Election security! Head Start! Medical research! Census funding! Defense! The National Flood Insurance Program! Tax extenders! Everyone gets a car.

As Politico put it, the agreement “would rain down $49 billion in extra funding upon nearly every facet of the federal government during the next nine months.”

2. Funding for “gun-violence research.”

In the ’90s it became clear that the Centers for Disease Control had a problem with guns, an issue that did not even fit into its named purpose of, uh, disease control. The agency funded bad science on the topic. Its officials were quoted in the media saying they planned to “systematically build a case that owning firearms causes deaths”; wanted “a long term campaign, similar to tobacco use and auto safety, to convince Americans that guns are, first and foremost, a public health menace”; and hoped the public would come to see guns as “dirty, deadly — and banned.”

Good science does not come from hacks hellbent on proving their preconceived notions to support an agenda, and the government should not be funding a deliberate attempt to undermine the fundamental rights of its citizens, so Congress pulled the plug on the CDC’s nonsense in 1996, forbidding the agency to advocate or promote gun control and redirecting the funding the agency had previously spent attacking the Second Amendment. This agreement brings the money back, giving the CDC and the National Institutes of Health $12.5 million apiece, earmarked for the purpose of gun research.

To be clear, it’s not necessarily a problem for the government to fund scientific research — though it’s simply not true that no one is studying gun violence without the CDC’s help. (I can assure you that even without public money, numerous researchers from the relentlessly anti-gun “public health” school of thought are very active indeed.) But given this history, funding this work specifically through the CDC and another public-health agency taints the effort from the beginning. If we want gun research we can actually trust, we should administer it through some other agency, such as the National Academies or the Department of Justice.

3. Raising the smoking age to 21.

Smoking is bad for you. But the adults we expect to fight wars on our behalf should be free to do things that are bad for you. It’s really as simple as that.

4. Killing the “Cadillac tax.”

The deal actually kills three health-care taxes in total, including an insurance fee, a tax on medical devices, and what’s known as the “Cadillac tax.” That final tax never went into effect — it was delayed repeatedly and set to go into effect in 2022 — but it addressed an actual problem with health-care funding in this country and deserved to be saved, or at least to be reformed rather than repealed outright.

The underlying problem here is that when you get health insurance through your employer, it’s tax-free, with no upper limit. This is a bizarre distortion of the market that grew out of wartime price controls, and it encourages employers to offer more and more compensation in the form of health benefits, driving up health costs. The “Cadillac tax” basically caps this tax exclusion, requiring people with especially lavish employer plans to pay taxes on some of this form of compensation. It’s not the best possible fix, but it’s better than nothing.

5. Continuing the “Export-Import Bank.”

“Ex-Im” is not exactly the biggest item in the federal budget, but it’s long irked libertarians and economic conservatives. It supports American exports in various ways, including loan guarantees, especially for Boeing. (Seriously: In raw dollar amounts, more than half of the bank’s loan guarantees support Boeing.)

The bank has had some rough times lately; it died briefly in 2015 and lacked a “quorum,” making it unable to handle the largest transactions, for four years after that. But the new agreement keeps it going for another seven years, albeit with some reforms pushed by China hawks designed to push the bank to especially help products that compete with China.

Ughs all around.

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