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Many changes lurk inside omnibus spending bill

Bill to fund government also lifts oil export ban, requires companies to share personal data with authorities

In what has become a bit of a Capitol Hill ritual, Congress is poised to vote Friday on its omnibus spending bill, just days before members leave for the holiday recess. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, as the omnibus is officially known, is a collection of spending authorizations to fund the government through the end of September 2016, accompanied by tax breaks. Together, the deal includes $1.15 trillion in spending and an estimated $680 billion in tax breaks spread out over the next decade.

Unlike in previous years, when a fractious Republican majority in the House was able to scuttle passage of a long-term deal, newly elected Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., appears to have most of his caucus on board for Friday passage. 

Like in other years, however, the 2,009-page bill provides an opportunity for lawmakers to tack on legislative pet projects and controversial amendments to a package that must pass to keep much of the government running. These are just some of the big changes hiding in the small print:

Lifting a ban on oil exports

A rider in the omnibus bill lifts the 40-year-old ban on the United States exporting crude oil. The ban, originally set in the wake of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, was supposed to keep gasoline prices down by keeping domestic production at home. But it is unclear what kind of influence this will have on an already-saturated global oil market today. American oil producers say lifting the ban will allow them to supplement flagging domestic sales with income from exports. Critics, however, say that with oil prices at a seven-year low, there may be few international buyers, and the real effect would be to actually increase U.S. oil imports as domestic and foreign benchmark prices equalize. Republicans have pushed hard for this for over a year, and seized the window created by the confluence of low oil prices and a unified caucus. Democrats in Congress have relaxed longstanding opposition to this move in exchange for concessions on renewable energy tax credits and environmental rules.

Environmental initiatives

In return for lifting the ban on exporting U.S. oil, the bill extends previously threatened spending on renewable energy sources. Included here are a five-year extension of the wind production tax credit, and a five-year extension of the solar energy credit (though both credits are set to be phased out in their final years). There is also money for a National Oceans and Coastal Security Fund designed to preserve coastlines, enhance coastal infrastructure and study measures to protect against rising sea levels and ocean acidification associated with climate change.

It is also reported that the omnibus is free of any riders blocking the Obama administration’s environmental regulations, a fact that is considered a victory for Democrats in a year when Republicans have stepped up attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency.

Big tax breaks

The appropriations bill includes an estimated $680 billion in new or extended tax givebacks over the next decade. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, the Republican chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, hailed the cuts, but Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., decried “hundreds of billions of dollars in special interest tax breaks” as “massive giveaways to special interests and big corporations.”

Planned Parenthood funding

Planned Parenthood, which came under fire earlier this year after the dissemination of a deceptively edited video, will continue to receive some federal aid — much to the chagrin of many Republican lawmakers, who vociferously called for withholding all federal funds from the women’s health service.

Delay of the ‘Cadillac Tax’

The start of the so-called “Cadillac Tax,” a controversial part of the Affordable Care Act that imposed a surcharge on some of the most generous health insurance plans, will be delayed another two years until 2020. Advocates of the tax have said that over-broad health plans drive up health care spending while suppressing wages, but an unlikely coalition of health insurance companies, labor unions and conservative Republicans has rallied to push back an excise tax that was expected to bring in $9 billion over its first two years.

The change is one of a handful of other alterations to what is commonly called Obamacare buried in the appropriations bill.

Aid for 9/11 responders

Also known as the Zadroga Act, the amendment will continue to fund a package of health care for first responders to the Sept. 11 attacks through 2090 — enough to last through their natural lives. Despite widespread bipartisan support, the funding was allowed to expire because Republicans — most notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — kept the legislation bottled up, demanding the plan’s financing be matched by cuts elsewhere in the budget. A high-profile push led by several sick and dying first repsonders, aided by Jon Stewart, former host of The Daily Show, is credited with helping save the program.

Cybersecurity language added

The omnibus bill includes the latest version of the Cybersecurity information Sharing Act (CISA), legislation that has enraged privacy advocates and technology experts, and was voted down in the Senate earlier this year. Like in past versions, the language requires companies to share private information with federal intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies if the government determines it is important to a national security investigation. CISA, which had already drawn strong condemnation from technology companies and Internet freedom advocacy groups, also shields telecommunications companies from legal action, should the personal information they share result in any harm to private consumers. 

Mark Jaycox, legislative analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy watchdog and one of CISA’s longtime critics, called the omnibus language “the worst version of CISA yet.” Jaycox said this bill is sweeping and important enough to deserve its own debate and vote.

With wire services

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