Politics & Government

Border Wall, Dalai Lama: 7 Things In Coronavirus, Spending Bills

Legislation approved by Congress protects the three-martini lunch, takes a stand against horse doping and OKs Smokey Bear reproductions.

Congress approved a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill that includes a $900 billion coronavirus relief package. Many of the items in the massive spending deal have nothing to do with the pandemic, though.
Congress approved a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill that includes a $900 billion coronavirus relief package. Many of the items in the massive spending deal have nothing to do with the pandemic, though. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON, DC — A flurry of end-of-the-year lobbying filled the nearly 5,600-page, $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill with pork that has little to do with helping out the millions of Americans living on the edge or shoring up the economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill approved Monday by Congress and awaiting President Donald Trump's signature — or veto — does include $900 billion in coronavirus relief funds. But it also includes some other things that may come as a surprise.

Here are seven of them:

1. Trump's Last Stand At The Border

The omnibus spending bill includes border wall funding to the tune of $1.375 billion. President-elect Joe Biden is almost certain to freeze border wall funding when he takes office in January, so this is Trump's last chance to secure money for a monument project fewer than half of Americans support. (The support of 43 percent of Americans is 3 percentage points higher than two years ago, according to an August NPR/Ipsos poll. The pollsters attribute the rise to concern about the spread of the coronavirus.)

Trump had asked for $2 billion in border wall funding for 2021. Democrats not only eschewed the request in their appropriations bill, they clawed back funds from previous years and blocked transfers from other accounts through the use of emergency powers.

2. A Bow To The Dalai Lama

In a shot that infuriated China, a provision in the omnibus spending bill reaffirms the right of the Tibetan people to choose a successor to their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in India in 1959. It states:

"Interference by the Government of the People's Republic of China or any other government in the process of recognizing a successor or reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama and any future Dalai Lamas would represent a clear abuse of the right to religious freedom of Tibetan Buddhists and the Tibetan people."

China views the Dalai Lama, who continues to advocate for some degree of Tibetan autonomy, as a dangerous "splittist," and tersely warned U.S. leaders from signing the legislation.

"We urge the U.S. side to stop meddling in China's internal affairs and refrain from signing into law these negative clauses and acts, lest it further harms our further cooperation and bilateral relations," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a regular briefing Tuesday, Reuters reported.

3. Museums For "Hyphenated Identity Groups"

The bill authorizes the establishment of the American Women's History Museum and the National Museum of the American Latino on the National Mall. Both Smithsonian museums have broad support, though Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee earlier this month blocked legislation authorizing their establishment, saying "segregated, separate-but-equal museums for hyphenated identity groups" are unnecessary.

Lee's comments were "dismissive, condescending and misguided," the Friends of the American Latino Museum said, vowing to see museum funding included the omnibus bill.

Lee also killed legislation for the women's museum, prompting the following from Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine:

"Surely in a year where we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage, this is the time, this is the moment to finally pass the legislation unanimously recommended by an independent commission to establish an American women's history museum in our nation's capital."

Lee, however, stood his ground, saying that even though he shared his colleague's "interests ensuring these stories are told," he didn't think separate museums for women and Latinos are needed.

This is only the first step in a yearslong process to build the museums. The Smithsonian acknowledges in its Willful Neglect report that it "almost entirely excludes and ignores Latinos in nearly every aspect of its operations."

4. Open Season On Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl

Go ahead and put the famous U.S. Forest Service public safety campaign mascots Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl on whatever you want. It's no longer a crime, punishable by up to six months in prison, to use the images beyond their original purpose.

The bill also repeals prohibitions on the use of the Interior Department's golden eagle insignia, the 4-H Club emblem and the Swiss Confederation's coat of arms.

5. A Drunken Write-Off

The fabled three-martini lunch is still a tax write-off. Both Trump pushed for and Democrats and tax experts denounced the tax break for corporate meal expenses. Trump and South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott said allowing companies to deduct the full cost of a business meal from their federal taxes would help revive the struggling restaurant industry. Scott said the "pro-worker, pro-restaurant, and pro-small business bill will lead to increased spending in restaurants and more income for staff."

Its inclusion is a reflection of how things work in Congress: Democrats agreed to it after securing a promise from Republicans to expand tax credits for low-income families and the working poor.

"Republicans are nickel-and-diming benefits for jobless workers, while at the same time pushing for tax breaks for three-martini power lunches," Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, told The Washington Post. "This is unconscionable."

There are lots of other tax breaks in the bill. It temporarily extends about three dozen expiring tax incentives and makes five others permanent.

6. Don't Dope Your Horse, Dope

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who hails from Kentucky horse country, which has some of the world's most famous horse racing tracks, used his clout to push for a provision that establishes an anti-doping and racetrack safety program.

The editorial board of the Kentucky Herald-Leader said it "will bring a much-needed level of regulation and oversight to horse racing, which has been plagued by a series of doping scandals and the racetrack deaths of far too many horses in the past few years."

7. Just Say No

The bill also includes $35 million for sexual-abstinence programs that "exclusively implement education in sexual risk avoidance (defined as voluntarily refraining from nonmarital sexual activity.)"

What else is in the bill? Read the full text of the bill.

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