WASHINGTON – It’s deal-making time in Congress as lawmakers prepare to plow through a pile of must-pass legislation before heading home for the holidays.
That means winners, losers, and last-minute manoeuvring to find a vehicle for favoured causes, stave off cuts or promote pet projects.
The five-year highway bill that Congress must pass ahead of a deadline Friday has become the vehicle for several extraneous measures. Lawmakers also must pass a package of spending bills by Dec. 11 to keep the government funded, and extend dozens of expiring tax breaks, some dear to Democrats and others favoured by Republicans.
A few of the items in the mix in Congress’ year-end rush:
The small federal agency that makes and guarantees loans to help foreign customers buy U.S. exports was allowed to expire over the summer as conservatives denounced it as corporate welfare.
But the bank is supported by Democrats and a sizable number of Republicans, and is backed by the business community. So despite opposition from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, a provision reviving the bank has found a home in the highway bill.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland called that “a positive victory for jobs and for our economy.” But conservatives and taxpayer advocates criticized the development.
“The corporate Chicken Littles won,” said Steve Ellis, vice-president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The highway bill repeals a section in the two-year budget deal enacted in November that would have cut federal crop insurance subsidies by $3 billion over 10 years.
Farm-state lawmakers were furious when the budget deal was released, saying that the cuts could be devastating to farmers. Rural lawmakers have fought to protect crop insurance, saying it makes more sense than other farm subsidies since it pays out when farmers suffer losses. House and Senate leaders quickly relented, saying they would reverse the cuts.
The banking industry and its congressional allies like House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, suffered a bitter defeat.
To finance some of the highway bill, the compromise replaces the current 6 per cent dividend the Federal Reserve pays to large banks with a floating rate tied to the 10-year Treasury note, which is expected to be less than 6 per cent. It transfers about $49 billion over 10 years from a Federal Reserve capital account to the general treasury, counting the money as new revenue.
Hensarling and Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, had fought to tap a huge pot of surpluses accumulating at the Fed to help pay for the highway measure. The final package included a modified plan, but Hensarling wasn’t happy and he refused to sign the conference agreement.
Hensarling also opposed reviving the Export-Import Bank, so the final highway bill was a double blow.
Despite the efforts of New York lawmakers, the highway bill does not contain language to extend a law providing medical monitoring, treatment and compensation for first responders after the Sept. 11 attacks. The law, which expired earlier this year, established the World Trade Center Health Program to help first responders affected by Sept. 11-related illnesses such as pulmonary diseases and cancers.
Democrats claim McConnell refused to allow the provision in the highway bill unless they agreed in exchange to lifting the ban on oil exports. McConnell’s spokesman, Don Stewart, contended that no final proposal ever was advanced and negotiations continue.
The measure could end up in a different year-end bill. House Judiciary Committee chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., said in a statement that “we are close to a final deal” to provide a fully funded five-year extension of the compensation portion of the law, which provides payments to people who suffered physical harm after the attacks.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Joan Lowy and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show the dividend paid to large banks will be replaced with a floating rate tied the 10-year Treasury note, not cut to 1.5 per cent.