hey big spender
December 17, 2019

The $1.37 trillion price tag on a package of spending bills expected to sail through Congress to President Trump's desk this week isn't all that controversial in Washington. There's plenty for everyone to love — and hate — among the $738 billion in military funding and $632 billion in non-military appropriations that will keep the federal government running though Oct. 1, 2020.

But along with its 12 must-pass annual appropriations bills, the 2,313-page spending package carries "an unusually large load of unrelated provisions catching a ride on the last train out of Congress this year," The Associated Press reports. Here are 4 of the most notable ones:

1. Youth smoking: The legislation raises the smoking age to 21, from 18, for both traditional tobacco products and vaping devices. The FDA will have six months to come up with regulations and three more years to work with states to enact them.

2. Gun-violence research: Democrats won $25 million for research into gun violence, breaking a two-decade de facto ban championed by the gun lobby. The National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would each get $12.5 million to track gun-related deaths and injuries, along with other research. "Scientific reports show that a lack of data on gun violence has delayed pivotal reforms despite persistent mass shootings," Axios reports. Democrats laid the groundwork last year.

3. Trump's wall: The package maintains a steady $1.37 billion for new barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border, short of the $8.6 billion Trump had requested for his wall but with fewer strings and no language barring him from siphoning off money from other accounts. The bill does not backfill $3.6 billion in military construction funds Trump raided for his border wall and mostly flat-lines the budges of the two main border enforcement agencies.

4. ObamaCare taxes: Three taxes Democrats had enacted to help finance the Affordable Care Act get the ax, making official successive temporary suspensions of the "Cadillac" tax on expensive health plans, 2.3 percent tax on medical devices, and roughly 2.5 percent levy on health insurance premiums. "Democrats put a bunch of funding mechanisms in ObamaCare to keep the deficit down, only to get torched by Republicans" and "hounded by industry," explains Bloomberg's Sahil Kapur. "One lesson that some Democrats will take from the ObamaCare experience is that paying for programs brings you a world of political pain, whereas throwing them on the national credit card (à la Medicare Part D) is safe." Peter Weber

October 17, 2019

Few Americans had ever heard of Gordon Sondland, a wealthy Oregon hotelier who donated $1 million to President Trump's inauguration and was then appointed U.S. ambassador to the European Union, before he became a central figure in Trump's Ukraine scandal and impeachment inquiry. Sondland, 62, is scheduled to be deposed by House impeachment investigators on Thursday.

A former Trump adviser has already testified that she viewed Sondland's inexperience and missteps as a national security risk, but according to friends and former White House officials, Sondland had been extremely eager to leverage his political donations into an ambassadorship. And once he arrived in Brussels in June 2018, "he got addicted," one former official told The Washington Post. "The way you're treated as a senior U.S. official, there's nothing like it in terms of adrenaline and ego boost."

Sondland was not, however, satisfied with the U.S. ambassador's residence. After unsuccessfully pushing for a new residence, the Post reports, he began proposing upgrades to the existing manor, and now he's "overseeing a nearly $1 million renovation of his government-provided residence, paid for with taxpayer money" and apparently "driven by Sondland's lavish tastes rather than practical needs."

The renovation includes $209,000 to upgrade the "professional kitchen," $223,000 to build an additional "family kitchen," nearly $30,000 for a new sound system, and $95,000 for an outdoor "living pod" featuring a pergola and electric heating, the Post reports, citing procurement records. The State Department also allocated more than $100,000 to house Sondland in an "alternate" residence in September and October.

The State Department defended the remodel, calling it part of a "regular 17-year cycle of reviewing and refreshing furnishings and interior décor in representational residences," and a person who has spoken with Sondland told the Post that the residence was "deteriorated and nearly unusable for representational purposes." One person with extensive knowledge of the residence before Sondland's arrival called that assessment "bulls--t," adding, "The house was in excellent condition."

The U.S. ambassador to the EU does host some events and working meetings, but most U.S. diplomatic events in Brussels are held at Whitlock Hall, the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Belgium. Peter Weber

March 21, 2019

Three days before he was publicly charged with soliciting prostitution at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida, billionaire financier John Childs cut two checks worth $50,000 to the Republican National Committee, Politico reports, citing February campaign finance disclosures. The RNC did not respond to Politico's request for comment, and Childs has previously denied soliciting prostitution.

The most famous figure caught up in the prostitution sting, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, meanwhile, rejected a plea deal Wednesday that would have kept him out of jail in return for admitting he would have been found guilty, performing 100 hours of community service, and taking a course on why prostitution is harmful, CNN reports. Also on Wednesday, attorneys for Kraft and more than a dozen other defendants in the case filed a motion to keep under seal surveillance video allegedly showing Kraft and others in paid sex acts; Florida does not agree with the motion.

Kraft is a longtime friend of President Trump, and Trump wants to invite him to the White House with the Patriots this spring to celebrate New England's Super Bowl championship, Politico reports, adding that White House aides are worried inviting Kraft "could turn a feel-good photo op into an embarrassing media spectacle."

The RNC — whose former national finance chairman Steve Wynn resigned last year after reports of sexual misconduct with employees — ended February with $31.1 million cash on hand after raising $14.6 million last month; the Democratic National Committee raised $6.5 million and finished the month with $7.5 million cash and $4.6 million in debt. Peter Weber

May 8, 2018

On Tuesday, President Trump will ask Congress to claw back $15 billion in previously approved spending, with $7 billion of that coming from the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), $4.2 billion from a vehicle technology program, $800 million from a health care innovation center created under the Affordable Care Act, and the rest from more than 30 other domestic programs. The "recission" request, which can pass with a simple majority, is expected to be approved by the House though its fate in the Senate is unclear. The last president to request a recission of previously appropriated funds was Bill Clinton, whose three requests totaled $128 million.

Trump is responding to outrage from conservatives over the $1.3 trillion spending package he signed March. This request would not touch that spending package, but the White House says Trump will soon request clawing back domestic appropriations from that law, too. A White House official described this first request as reclaiming pots of money that "are just sitting in accounts" unused.

"The White House is attempting to portray this as Trump forcing Washington to clean up its financial act," says The Washington Post's Heather Long, "but some perspective is needed":

Since becoming president, Trump enacted a massive tax cut for corporations and many individuals that is projected to add at least $1.3 trillion to the deficit over the next decade (plus additional interest costs), according to the Congressional Budget Office. Then Congress and the president agreed to a two-year budget deal that will add $300 billion more to America's debt, the CBO says. After approving an additional $1,600,000,000 in spending since December alone, Trump now wants to cut $15,000,000 (or 0.9 percent). [The Washington Post]

"This is not a deficit reduction exercise, but more of a public relations exercise to soothe the base and convince them that the White House is fiscally responsible," G. William Hoagland, a former Senate budge director now at the Bipartisan Policy Center, tells Politico. Peter Weber

February 17, 2015

Israel's state comptroller, Joseph Shapira, released a report on Tuesday criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, for excessive spending of public funds on their residences. "Public trust in government institutions is a cornerstone of every democracy," he wrote. "One would expect an elected public official to demonstrate extra sensitivity... and serve as an exemplary model of saving public funds."

The report went into detail about money spent at the official prime minister's residence in Jerusalem and the Netanyahu's private home in Caesarea. In 2009, the year Netanyahu took office, expenses at both residences were at $500,000 a year, Shapira found, and that doubled by 2011 before going down to roughly $600,000 in 2013. Between 2009 and 2013, a monthly average of $20,000 was spent on cleaning both residences, the Netanyahus spent more than $100 a day on personal grooming, and $20,000 a year was spent delivering meals, despite having a chef on staff, the Los Angeles Times reports. These expenses were "not compatible with the basic principles of proportionality, reasonability, economy, and efficiency," Shapira wrote.

Netanyahu's spokesman said the prime minister will take the report seriously and wants his staff to take its recommendations, but a statement from his Likud party said it was just a distraction in the weeks leading up to the election. Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog wrote on his Facebook page: "It is not because of how you conduct yourself in your homes that the public wants to replace you. We will replace you because on your shift, Hamas grows stronger... young couples cannot buy a house... because you eat a $5,000 breakfast when every third child in Israel goes to bed hungry." Catherine Garcia

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