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Who got special deals in the stimulus and why they got them

POLITICO logo POLITICO 3/27/2020 By Caitlin Emma, Jennifer Scholtes and Theodoric Meyer
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In the race to save the economy and pass the largest economic rescue package in American history, Congress still found a way to do some old-fashioned home state favors and reward key special interests.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) managed to successfully push a minimum assistance figure for every state — $1.5 billion — to make sure small states like his weren’t left out in the legislation.

A provision for the FDA to approve “innovative” sunscreens—that happen to be made in Florence, Ky., by L’Oreal—appeared in the bill, which was steered in the Senate by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

The gaming industry wasn’t left out either: Casinos will be able to tap government loans for disaster assistance, a payback after casinos were blocked from receiving tax breaks extended to other businesses after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

As the colossal $2 trillion rescue package heads toward President Donald Trump’s desk as soon as this weekend, it’s clear that special interests and members of Congress aren’t letting the pandemic crisis go to waste.

Here’s a look at a handful of special deals, and how they got into the stimulus:

Travel agents' relief

Special deal: The ability to apply for $25 billion in loans and loan guarantees reserved for the airlines.

How they got it: The airlines used their clout to get tens of billions of dollars in grants and loans included in the bill, but carriers aren’t the only ones who will benefit. The $25 billion allocated in loans and loan guarantees for the airlines will also benefit eligible businesses "approved to perform inspection, repair, replace, or overhaul services, and ticket agents.” The last two words — “ticket agents” — mean that travel agents who book flights will also be able to apply for a piece of the $25 billion.

Slideshow by Stacker

Better, faster sunscreen

Special deal: Tucked in the final bill is language ensuring that the FDA reviews newer and more novel ingredients for over-the-counter sunscreen products in a timely fashion.

How they got it: The shout-out for sunscreen is part of a long-awaited effort to reform the over-the-counter drug industry, added to the rescue bill amid backing from that industry and various health groups. Besides expanding FDA oversight of over-the-counter products, the provision would streamline the process to change safety labels. Legislation has passed the House and Senate in various forms over the past two years. Last year the Senate easily passed a bill in a 91-2 vote.

In addition to the over-the-counter reforms, the final relief package makes some updates to the Sunscreen Innovation Act, a 2014 bill co-sponsored by McConnell and signed into law by former President Barack Obama. In a statement at the time, McConnell lamented the slow review of applications for sunscreen ingredients that could potentially be more effective at protecting skin, adding that the bill will benefit Kentucky workers that manufacture “innovative sunscreen ingredients at facilities” in the state.

Equity for small states

Special deal: The agreement would provide $150 billion for state and local governments, with no state getting less than $1.5 billion. States are clamoring for help as tax revenue evaporates and unemployment claims climb by the tens of thousands every day.

How they got it: Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, represents Vermont. He told reporters on Thursday that he pushed for language to ensure that small states don’t lose out on emergency funds.

Job security for military brass

Special deal: The rescue package permits Trump to extend the terms of up to seven senior military leaders: the Air Force chief of staff; the chief of space operations; the chief of the National Guard Bureau; the directors of the Army and Air National Guard; and the chief of the Army and Navy Reserves. Many of those top officers' terms are set to expire later this year. The provision would permit Trump to keep these current leaders in the job until successors are confirmed.

How they got it: The provision was included in an initial Senate Republican version of the stimulus and has the backing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The aim is to give Trump options to fill top leadership posts amid the coronavirus crisis. “At this unprecedented time, the committee and the administration wanted to ensure we have every possible option available to keep critical military positions filled,” Marta Hernandez, a committee spokesperson, said.

Mitch McConnell wearing a suit and tie: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gives a thumbs up hours before the Senate approved the major coronavirus stimulus bill. © Win McNamee/Getty Images Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gives a thumbs up hours before the Senate approved the major coronavirus stimulus bill.

A win for the credit reporting industry

Special deal: Consumers wouldn't get a negative credit report if they have an agreement with a lender to delay payments or make partial payments. That was a way to stave off a total ban on negative credit reports during the crisis. The credit reporting industry contended a total ban would have been highly damaging to its products.

How they got it: Democrats like Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Brian Schatz of Hawaii unsuccessfully pushed for the ban, in addition to access to free credit reports and scores. It’s not the first win for credit reporting companies. During Congress' last major revamp of financial regulations in 2018, the industry overcame backlash from the massive Equifax data breach when it won language providing a shield from consumer lawsuits related to a free credit monitoring requirement in the bill.

Student loan tax boon

Special deal: The final package creates a new tax benefit for student loan borrowers whose employers help them pay off their debt. Under the bill, a company could pay up to $5,250 of an employee’s student loan payments each year on a tax-free basis.

How they got it: The provision stems from a bipartisan proposal circulating on Capitol Hill for the last few years, most recently pushed by Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), large employers and college groups. Reps. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) and Scott Peters (D-Calif.) have also introduced a companion bill in the House. Some critics, however, have said it will provide new tax benefits to financially secure, well-off borrowers who don’t need the help.

Casinos roll the dice and win

Special deal: Casinos pushed for provisions to make sure they wouldn’t be blocked from federal aid. They're allowed to apply for portions of the $350 billion in Small Business Administration loans if they’re a small business and need less than $10 million. Larger casinos can apply for $454 billion in loans backed by Treasury.

How they got it: Casinos were afraid of being excluded. The industry sought to make sure the bill didn’t include any provisions that would block MGM Resorts International, Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas Sands or its other members from getting the same help as other industries.

Free video visitation in prison

Special deal: The legislation will mean free video conference and phone calls for inmates during the pandemic, if Attorney General Bill Barr agrees.

How they got it: As the pandemic spread throughout the U.S., prisons canceled normal visiting hours and closed facilities to outside visitors. And inmates typically face higher-than-usual charges for calling those outside the prison grounds, an issue that the Federal Communications Commission and some lawmakers have tried to address in the past. Last week, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) pressed the Bureau of Prisons to allow inmate phone calls and videoconferencing for free during the pandemic and touted a victory following the Senate’s passage of the relief measure.

Harbor dredging help

Special deal: The deal includes language making it easier for Congress to dole out money for harbor dredging by exempting from discretionary spending caps the Army Corps of Engineers funding provided through the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The provision is a boon for ports that need dredging work, like the one in Mobile, Ala., in Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby's (R-Ala.) home state.

How they got it: Prominent backers of the push include Shelby and House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). Shelby has fought repeatedly with his own party over the issue. One Republican aide called the decision “an easy give to Shelby, since he’s been wanting it for years and now why not give it to him?”

Relief for farmers

Special deal: The stimulus provides $9.5 billion in emergency aid for the agriculture industry and replenishes $14 billion in spending authority to the Agriculture Department’s Commodity Credit Corp., a Depression-era financial institution set up to stabilize the farm economy — the same USDA agency sending trade bailout payments to farmers. Producers ranging from dairy farmers and cattle ranchers to fresh fruit and vegetable growers are eligible.

How they got it: Livestock groups have been leaning on lawmakers for weeks to pony up funds for producers who have seen commodity prices plummet since January. Western senators including John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who chairs the Appropriations panel that oversees agricultural spending, made sure those provisions were part of the stimulus plan from the get-go. Then, top Democrats like Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, ranking member on the Agriculture Committee, pushed to include language making specialty crop farmers — like Michigan’s tart cherry growers — eligible for the emergency aid.

Michael Stratford, Ryan McCrimmon, Connor O’Brien, Sarah Owermohle, Anthony Adragna, John Hendel and Zachary Warmbrodt contributed to this report.

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