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5 More Surprises Hiding in the CRomnibus Bill

Fiscal Times logo Fiscal Times 12/27/2014 Rob Garver
© iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

Congress rushed out of town this month, leaving in its wake a 1,603-page monstrosity of a spending bill that combined what ought to have been 11 separate appropriations bills into a single piece of legislation. 

The so-called CRomnibus (called that because it required a Continuing Resolution funding the Department of Homeland Security through early 2015 in order to complete work on federal spending) wasn’t available long enough for the public or lawmakers to give it detailed scrutiny before lawmakers hit the road. 

Some provisions attracted attention and debate, but others went largely unnoticed. (For more on what’s in the bill, see here and here.) The five elements of the bill below fall squarely in the second category, having gotten relatively scant attention before the CRomnibus received President Obama’s signature. 

Military pay and benefits
Any move to cut pay for soldiers is almost certainly political non-starter when considered on its own. Camouflaged in the CRomnibus, though, it sailed through. Members of the military were slated to receive a 1.8 percent pay increase in the coming year, but under the bill the president signed into law, that increase is reduced by nearly half, to 1 percent. The new law also sets the stage for members of the military and their families to pay more for prescription drugs and for a decrease in their housing allowances. 

War funding
The spending bill sets aside $64 billion above and beyond the Pentagon’s already enormous budget to fund the ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only is the money not counted against the Pentagon’s spending, it is also off the books when it comes to compliance with the Bipartisan Budget Act passed earlier this year. 

To put that in perspective, the off-the-books spending on Iraq and Afghanistan next year will be more than the funding of every cabinet-level department in the Executive Branch, other than the Pentagon. 

Pension protection
Across the country, many businesses that promised their employees pensions when they retired neglected to make the necessary contributions to adequately fund those pensions. With the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation running out of money to bail out insolvent private pension funds, the CRomnibus makes it easier for companies to slash the benefits of workers who have already retired.

The provision in question deals with what are known as multiemployer pension plans, which are funded jointly by groups of employers and unions in certain industries. Those plans cover about 10 million workers in total, but plans covering about 1.5 million workers are at risk of running out of money over the next 20 years. 

The CRomnibus provision was meant to prevent federal bailouts of those funds, but to achieve that goal it carves out a big exception to the 1974 ERISA law, which said that benefits already earned by private-sector workers could not be cut. 

Critics of the measure worry about the precedent that might be set here: With the Dow Jones Industrial Average at record highs and corporate profits booming, companies that failed to live up to the promises they made to their employees are being allowed cut promised benefits rather than make good on their agreements. 

Funding for ACORN
The bill contains a provision barring the federal government from providing any funding to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. What’s that you say? ACORN hasn’t existed since 2010? Well apparently, just in case the fair housing advocacy group, disbanded amid scandal four years ago, comes back from the dead, its zombie won’t be getting any federal cash. 

Government waste
The bill specifically blocks the government from taking steps in multiple areas to save taxpayer money. It bars the Department of Agriculture from shuttering redundant Farm Service Agency offices – some of which are literally unused. It insists that the Pentagon continue spending money on weapons systems that the heads of the various service branches have said are unnecessary. It defunds the Independent Payments Advisory Board, which was specifically designed to help the government save money on health care spending. 

That last, of course, is one of the signature elements of the Affordable Care Act, meant to stop the expansion of health coverage from busting the federal budget. The fact that President Obama was willing to sign it suggests that he may have been eager to get out of town as well. 

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