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What Can $1.2 Trillion Buy In Washington? Nothing Good.

The more-than-1,000-page, $1.2 trillion minibus dropped just before 3 a.m. Thursday morning. Will anyone finish reading it before Congress votes on it?

Ghost Army Ceremony

In what has been a long, drawn-out appropriations process for fiscal year 2024, Congressional leaders believe they’ve finally come to an arrangement on the final six spending bills. Will legislators have the time to finish reading the leadership’s back-room deal before it comes to the floor, let alone the opportunity to amend it? Legislators on the Hill doubt it after leadership dropped the 1,000 page bill just before 3 a.m. on Thursday morning, less than 48 hours before a partial government shutdown. 

The 1,012 page bill is six appropriations bills clumped together in what’s being called a minibus (short for “mini omnibus”). Legislators in both chambers will have just hours to read through the minibus that carries a $1.2 trillion price tag before likely voting on the package that is set to be rushed through both chambers, despite a rule in the House that promises members 72 hours to review legislation. In an email to The American Conservative, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas put it this way: “House Republicans believe they will inspire Americans to polls by jamming through almost $1.2 trillion in over 1000 pages of open-border funding nonsense with about 24 hours to read it?  Situation normal....” The Texas Congressman encouraged TAC to finish the sentence.


Nevertheless, House leadership and GOP appropriators took a victory lap. “House Republicans have achieved significant conservative policy wins, rejected extreme Democrat proposals, and imposed substantial cuts to wasteful agencies and programs while strengthening border security and national defense,” House Speaker Mike Johnson said.

House Appropriations Chair Kay Granger said the package “funds our highest national security priorities—it invests in a more modern, innovative, and ready fighting force, continues our strong support for our great ally Israel, and provides key border enforcement resources.”

“At the same time, we made cuts to programs that have nothing to do with our national security and pulled back billions from the administration,” the GOP appropriations lead claimed.

Senate leadership has been quiet. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer continued his public dispute with Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been silent on the bill so far, presumably as he deals with the bizarre death of his sister-in-law. Both point to a confidence that this bill, given the constraints and potential consequences, will sail through.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah could be making a victory lap of his own: His prophecies about the minibus have all come true. “I made a few predictions earlier in the week,” Lee told TAC. “I predicted that the bill would be more than 1,000 pages. It is. It's 1,012 pages long. I predicted that it would contain hundreds of earmarks. It does. And I predicted that it would do nothing to address the massive deficit debt that we face. It doesn’t. And I predicted that it would do nothing to force the Biden administration to secure the border and stop the invasion at our southern border. And it doesn’t.”


Lee called the maneuver and the bill “insulting” in a phone interview with The American Conservative. “They’re giving it to us literally the day before the government is going to shut down? And they’re saying, ‘Sorry, there's no more time to do it. You have to pass this now, or shut down the government and be blamed for the consequences’?”

Lee has taken to calling leadership in both chambers “the firm” as it negotiates massive spending deals behind closed doors. “What they’re saying [in this bill] is that the firm matters more than the people. That the firm’s interest in making sure that only the firm’s language, the firm’s earmarks, that the firm is blessed, is more important than allowing the American people through their elected lawmakers in Washington to have a say in how they spend the people’s money. Trillions of dollars’ worth.”

“No Republicans should vote for the bill for several reasons,” Virginia’s Rep. Bob Good, the House Freedom Caucus chair, told TAC over the phone. “One, it’s got thousands of earmarks for billions of dollars, which is a reason to vote against it to begin with. But of course, some Republicans are benefiting from those. Secondly, we don’t have time to read it to even know what we would be voting for—which is easier for me, since I knew I wasn’t going to vote for it anyway. But if I was going to own everything in that bill, I might want some time to read it to know what I have to defend after I vote for it.”

“At some point, having $35 trillion in debt is going to have an impact, and it's not going to be sustainable,” Sen. Rick Scott of Florida told TAC in a phone interview. “I don’t know when that will be, but something’s going to happen because our interest expense now exceeds defense, exceeds Medicare. And inflation will not come down as long as we run massive deficits.

“In 2019, before the pandemic, the federal government in total spent $4.4 trillion. But Biden is budgeting an increase of basically $3 trillion over that for fiscal year 2025. This year, we’ll probably have a 56 percent increase in terms of total outlays. Discretionary spending has gone up 41 percent since 2018. Our population has grown at probably less than 2 percent, and discretionary spending is up 41 percent, total spending up 56 percent,” Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin explained to TAC. 

“What’s really gross is that this is being reported like it’s austere. I don’t think this is an austere budget,” Johnson added. “How can anybody justify that when we are running trillion and a half dollar deficits every year?”

The six-part minibus funds the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, Labor, and Homeland Security. The DOD will receive $886 billion, a 3 percent increase compared to last year. While DOD accounts for two-thirds of the package’s price tag, the biggest difficulty in spending negotiations since October, whether its base appropriations or supplemental funding, has been DHS, given the chaos on the southern border. At the 11th hour, the Biden administration encouraged congressional leaders to pass a full appropriations bill for DHS rather than another stopgap. Congressional leaders obliged.

It’s no surprise, however, after McConnell’s recent maneuvering to ensure any border deal made during this Congress would be toothless, that the border security provisions of the minibus will do little to restore order on the southern border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) receives $19.6 billion, which is $3.2 billion more than fiscal year 2023  and amounts to a nearly 20 percent increase in funding. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will receive $9.5 billion, which amounts to about a 14 percent increase compared to FY23.

The southern border is one of the few places where it currently makes sense to boost federal spending, but what is nearly $30 billion buying American taxpayers in border security? Republican appropriators boast that the money provides for 22,000 additional border patrol agents, “which is consistent with H.R. 2.” For a $2.273 billion price tag, GOP appropriators said DHS will add another 7,500 detention beds to increase the total to 41,500. There is also $283.5 million in “new border security technology,” $10 million “for task forces dedicated to countering the flow of fentanyl,” $3.4 billion for custody operations (including the additional beds), and $721 million for removal operations.

It’s $30 billion of lipstick on a pig.

At first glance, more border patrol agents sounds nice. So do more detention beds, when the alternative is catch and release. In the minibus, the GOP completely adopts Democrats’ framing on immigration: It’s simply a process and optics problem. The minibus affirms Democrats’ immigration narrative by providing “$160.1 million for refugee processing, asylum, and work authorization backlog reduction” amid $281.1 million for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), $29.9 million for family reunification, and 12,000 additional Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans.

Further, while GOP appropriators boast these provisions are in line with HR 2, the legislation does not include any provisions that leverage these resources to ensure the Biden administration enforces federal law. What good are 22,000 more CBP agents when the Biden administration orders them to sit on their heels or to rush illegal immigrants into the country as quickly as possible? ICE will, however, be compelled to publish crucial detainee data online, such as the number of transgender detainees.

“It doesn’t matter how many more. We could have 100,000 border agents, but when you have a White House that’s not going to secure the border, they’re just going to process people faster,” Scott told TAC. “There’s nothing in here that’s going to require him to secure the border. This president has made his decision that he’s going to completely be lawless.”

Not to worry, says Republican appropriators—$117 million will be directed towards the Emergency Food and Shelter program for sanctuary jurisdictions struggling to handle the massive influx of illegals. “Well, that’s a huge incentive,” Johnson said in response to more sanctuary jurisdiction funding.

“It contains nothing that forces the Biden administration to stop the invasion, and the chaos, and the humanitarian crisis at our southern border,” Lee told TAC of the supposed border security provisions.

“My concern would be they're increasing spending for detention and more CBP officers—is that how it’s actually going to be used? Or is it going to be used, as I suspect, to become more efficient at encountering, processing, and dispersing,” Johnson told TAC. “How do you force this President to use the authority he has to secure the border? No matter what agreement we would reach with this guy, you can’t trust him. So now we've reached agreement on an appropriations bill. What kind of enforcement mechanism does it have? Can you trust him?”

Johnson reflected on the appropriations and supplemental negotiations since October of last year that led to Republicans being on the back foot. He said that “what was so disappointing in what was masterminded by McConnell, the secret negotiations within our conference” was that “we were looking for an enforcement mechanism” that McConnell, it was later revealed, prevented from the outset.

“What we really need is something that forces action. Because right now, he’s using his discretionary authority to just leave this stuff wide open. We need things that would remove some of his discretionary authority. And we also need things that would force outcomes or condition funding on the achievement of operational control of the border,” Lee said. “This bill doesn’t do any of those things. This is a fig leaf! They've offered a fig leaf in favor of border security, and nothing more.”

“The bill does not address any issues we have right now,” Scott claimed. “It’s not addressing the two biggest issues. It's making inflation worse, and it's not addressing the border crisis at all.”

Good told TAC that actual border security measures are “essentially non existent” in the bill. More border patrol agents and beds “are both intended by this administration to allow them to more quickly process more illegals into the country,” Good added. “We've got a willful, purposeful facilitation of the invasion by this administration who has done this on purpose and obviously doesn't want any border security.”

Speaker Johnson has admitted as much: “While these changes are welcome, only a significant reversal in policy by the president to enforce the law can ultimately secure our border,” a statement from the house speaker read.

Congressional leaders and appropriators don’t seem to care much about America’s borders, but the minibus does provide millions to protect Ukraine’s borders. The Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative will receive $300 million, and another $335 million will be directed towards “U.S. allies and partners facing Russian aggression.” 

“Yet again, we’re fetishizing Ukraine's border security issues, while ignoring our own,” Lee told TAC. “It is criminally reckless.”

“There's so many questions that remain even unasked, much less unanswered, throughout this appropriation process,” when it comes to Ukraine, Johnson said. “I'm just getting repulsed by it quite honestly.”

This $635 million for the war in Ukraine, which some lawmakers apparently believe is much broader than the administration currently acknowledges, is likely just the tip of the iceberg. “Our foreign policy experts suspect the hundreds of millions for Ukraine is actually billions, due to various slush funds and gimmicks,” one senior Senate Republican staffer told TAC.

The minibus also provides $200 million for a new FBI headquarters—the FBI that has trained its sights on parents at school board meetings and Catholics who attend the traditional Mass. “Obviously, the FBI headquarters issue is a real big disappointment to a lot of Republicans,” Lee said. “This has become a symbolic and a substantive issue for many Republicans and with good reason. Democrats got huge wins with earmarks like that.”

The new FBI headquarters isn’t the only earmark conservatives should deplore, Lee suggested. He started rattling off earmarks in the minibus:

$1.8 million for a hospital in Rhode Island that performs late term abortions. It gives $475,000 for an activist organization that's curriculum and materials are put together for kids ages two through five and introduces kids to “a wide variety of gender expressions and family structures,” whatever that means. $676,000 for an organization that has been actively supportive of Black Lives Matter. $2.8 million for an institution that released an inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility charter in 2020. $500,000 for a radical activist organization that hosts training workshops on implicit bias, social inclusion, inequity, decolonization, and land acknowledgement. $450,000 for a child care initiative that is being established to give childcare for immigrant families—so instead of securing our border, we’re using our taxpayer money not to secure the border, but to create welfare programs for illegal immigrants who have invaded our country at the invitation of President Biden.

Democrats also secured another billion in climate change funding.

“We ought to at least get something out of it if we’re going to spend this ungodly sum of money on these ridiculous earmarks and all the other bloated spending that this provides,” Lee added. “On border security, and we get nothing—nothing!”

Scott also expressed his disdain for the amount of earmarks in the bill. “We are in $2 trillion dollar deficits, and they're doing special projects so somebody can brag that they brought money back home and act like that’s free?” Scott asked rhetorically. “It’s not free, somebody has to pay for it.”

Democrats not only boasted about getting their earmarks. They also claimed to have blocked a number of Republican “poison pill[s],” which certainly relate to the most pressing issues facing Americans today. Democrats declared victory over Republican attempts to block funding for “diversity, equity, and inclusion programs across the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community,” prohibit the government from being the arbiters of misinformation, and prevent flying the pride flag over some federal buildings, to name a few.

Leadership in both chambers are expected to jam the bill through as to get the president’s signature before Friday’s end. The House will likely vote on the bill under suspension of the rules around 11 a.m. Friday morning. There’s not much House conservatives can do to stop it. 

In the Senate, however, things could get interesting. Lee explained how conservatives might put up a fight in the amendment process:

The majority leader has a tool by which he can effectively block out amendments. He can effectively forestall other senators from having their amendments become pending, and, therefore, making sure that they are addressed, that they get voted on, or are dealt with in some meaningful manner. That procedural tool is colloquially referred to in the senate is “filling the tree.” Once he fills the tree, that power is significant, but a Republican minority, as long as we have at least 41 votes (and currently we have 49 Republicans in the Senate), can push back on that. 

The pushback that you give to a majority leader who fills the tree and thus blocks amendments is to, as we say, hold 41. If you hold 41 votes to oppose cloture, that is to vote “no,” on a motion to bring debate to a close, then you can effectively force the majority leader to reconsider and to allow some amendments. Normally, what happens, especially if they see that we have the ability to hold 41 and that we intend to do so, the majority leader will become a lot more gracious, a lot more hospitable, to the idea of having an amendment process, and he will schedule them. So that’s more or less what we’re looking at.

What such a delay can accomplish remains to be seen. “It is fascinating to me that we can’t have a robust amendment process,” Scott told TAC. “If I cant talk somebody into it, that's my problem, but if I don't have a chance to talk to people about my ideas, that's a leadership problem. So this will just be another failed exercise for Republicans, but a great exercise for Democrats where they get exactly what they want, and we get no wins.”

Sen. Johnson would like to see amendments, too. “I think it’s important to have amendment votes because we should be highlighting how Democrats will oppose sending back criminals who are in this country illegally. They will support sanctuary cities getting funding even though sanctuary cities refuse to cooperate with ICE in detaining, or even providing notice when they're going to release somebody that’s a criminal in this country illegally.”

But Sen. Johnson isn’t optimistic that amendments can stave off the inevitable for long. “Unfortunately, because of this process, it’ll be probably passed within about 48 hours, or something like that, then we’ll move on, we’ll forget about it,” he said. “That’s the well-known process of mortgaging our children’s future.”


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