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Congress to Send Spending Bill to Biden’s Desk
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Congress to Send Spending Bill to Biden’s Desk

A look at what made the cut.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks at a news conference following a Senate vote on government funding Thursday. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Good afternoon! Uphill will take a break next week. (Merry Christmas and happy New Year!) But we’ll be back on January 3, when the new Congress kicks off with a vote on the next speaker of the House.

Exploring the Omnibus  

The $1.7 trillion government spending package the House is poised to approve today clocks in at 4,155 pages—and believe it or not, I didn’t actually have time to read the entire bill after it was released earlier this week.

But I dug through some important aspects and a few interesting items that made the cut. We’ll start with one of the primary reasons some Senate Republicans are touting this bill as a win: Ukraine aid.

Slava Ukraini

The omnibus spending bill includes roughly $44.9 billion in Ukraine-related expenses, but not all of it will go directly to Ukraine. 

About $12 billion is directed to the American military to restock weapons and equipment supplies depleted by previous assistance packages. Another $9 billion is set aside to replenish the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, a previously authorized fund to help Ukraine equip and train its defense forces.

The omnibus package also boosts President Joe Biden’s authority to transfer weapons and defense equipment from Defense Department stockpiles to Ukraine.

Nearly $4 billion is included for various refugee resettlement programs, and roughly $13 billion is directed to economic assistance for Ukraine.

Smaller pools of money will go to war response: $126 million for nuclear non-proliferation efforts and $375 million for the State Department to carry out international narcotics control and law enforcement related to Ukraine. The bill also directs $105 million to demining in Ukraine and roughly $300 million to U.S. military branches for research and development related to Ukraine.

Despite claims from some House Republicans that Ukraine aid comes with no accountability, the bill authorizes millions of dollars for inspectors general in different branches of the government to review the use of these funds, including at the Defense Department, State Department, and U.S. Agency for International Development. 

Lawmakers also included language requiring agencies to report on the difficult task of tracking what happens to aid sent to a war zone. One such report would disclose any known instances of weapons and equipment sent to Ukraine since the start of Russia’s invasion that did not reach their intended recipients or were not used for their intended purposes. That report, to be delivered to relevant congressional committees within 45 days of enactment of the bill, will come from the Defense and State departments.

It will also include a description of how the Pentagon is working to account for defense equipment sent to Ukraine and measures to make sure they reach their intended recipients.

It’s clearly a concern on members’ minds. And it’s one Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sought to reassure Congress about during his address to lawmakers on Wednesday: “Your money is not charity,” he said. “It is an investment in global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.”

Disaster Relief

Congressional appropriators say the omnibus includes more than $40 billion in emergency funds related to drought, hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, and other natural disasters around the United States.

This includes $20 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s disaster response and recovery programs, $1.5 billion for national parks to rebuild after disasters, and more than $1 billion for wildfire management.

Multiple pools of money are also directly tied to hurricanes Fiona and Ian, including money for direct assistance, Defense Department construction needs related to the hurricanes, and federal highway rebuilding efforts.

Read more about the disaster assistance in the bill here, here, and here.

Veterans’ Health Care

The spending package allocates $5 billion to a fund created earlier this year to provide health care to veterans harmed by exposure to toxic burn pits. 

It also boosts funding for veterans’ health care by $21.7 billion over last fiscal year to a total of $118.7 billion. This includes funding for veterans’ homelessness programs, mental health care, suicide prevention outreach, and opioid and substance abuse efforts.

Earmarks

One of the most controversial elements of the spending package is the $15 billion in earmarks for more than 7,200 community projects. Many of these are related to water, energy, the environment, transportation, and urban development.

Republican Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran obtained $10 million for the Kansas City Board of Utilities to replace old water lines, for example.

Republican lawmakers have criticized earmarks advanced by Democrats, including funding for an LGBTQ museum in New York, several LGBTQ community centers and related programs, a “Great Blacks in Wax” museum in Baltimore, and a trail in Georgia named after former first lady Michelle Obama.

For some light holiday reading, spreadsheets of the earmarks included in the omnibus are available here.

Retirement Savings

The omnibus includes an overhaul of retirement savings rules, intended to encourage Americans to save more.

One significant change: It will delay mandatory withdrawals from 401(k)s, IRAs, and other defined contribution plans. In January, the age at which retirees are required to make minimum annual withdrawals from their retirement savings will be pushed from 72 to 73 years old. That will go even higher, to 75 years old, in 2033.

A helpful breakdown of the legislation is available here.

Electoral Count Act Reform

Congress is also using the omnibus packaging to revise the law that dictates the certification of Electoral College votes after presidential elections, a response to former President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

The changes outline a process for legal challenges to election results, including expedited consideration of cases and direct appeals to the Supreme Court. The bill also limits the vice president to “solely ministerial duties” during the January 6 congressional certification of results. Trump used the unclear phrasing of existing law to falsely argue his vice president, Mike Pence, could have single handedly overturned the election. (Pence declined.)

The legislation explicitly denies the vice president the power to solely decide or adjudicate disputes about election results. 

It also hikes the threshold required for lawmakers to lodge objections to states’ slates of electors: Currently, support from only one member from each chamber is required to launch an objection. The bill would make that threshold one-fifth of both chambers, theoretically cutting down on frivolous objections.

TikTok Ban For Government Devices

Lawmakers are also banning the use of TikTok on government phones and devices, with exceptions for national security, research, and law enforcement purposes.

TikTok, an app owned by a Chinese company, grants enormous access to personal data on users’ devices, raising fears about how the information may be used. Just this week, Forbes reported TikTok employees spied on the locations of journalists who covered the company in an attempt to ferret out people who may have leaked information to the press.

A ban on installing TikTok on government devices passed the Senate without any opposition earlier this month, but inclusion in the omnibus spending package means it will soon become law.

Taiwan Loans

Members of Congress want to boost Taiwan’s ability to defend itself in the event of a Chinese attack, but they disagree about just how much money to send to the self-governing, democratic island. 

The already-passed annual defense authorization bill directed as much as $2 billion per year in foreign military financing for Taiwan, with the option of pursuing grants or loans. Taiwanese officials wanted grants—rather than loans that they would have to repay—to buy American weapons. But appropriators worried grants would take too much out of the State Department’s budget. 

The omnibus bill dictates that for at least the next fiscal year, the assistance will be in the form of loans to be repaid within 12 years.

Republicans criticized the decision.

“The Biden Administration simply has not made Taiwan—or pushing for funding a Taiwan security assistance package—a priority,” Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, told Defense News. “That is reflected in the disappointing security assistance funding levels in the final funding bill. This is a huge missed opportunity and very concerning. In the next Congress, I will continue to press for robust funding for Taiwan’s defense against China.”

Presented Without Comment

The Mood

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.