Virus Bills Stuffed With F-35 Money, Help for Cannabis Firms

Tucked into the latest coronavirus packages from Democrats and Republicans are a slew of provisions that don’t have much to do with a public health crisis.

Republicans want $29.4 billion for fighter jets and other military spending and $1.75 billion for a new FBI building. Democrats are proposing $136.6 billion for state and local tax breaks for high earners and expanded access to banks for cannabis companies.

Those budget lines, while relatively small compared to the $1 trillion total Republicans have said they’re looking to spend -- or the more than $3 trillion sought by Democrats -- are becoming key sticking points as the leaders of the two parties try to hash out a deal on the next coronavirus aid package.

“I’m not going to vote for a lot of spending porn,” Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, told reporters Wednesday. “I’m embarrassed about it. This is supposed to be a coronavirus bill.”

Slipping unrelated items in an expansive piece of legislation is a time-honored practice in Washington. For example, the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill enacted in March included a tax deduction for restaurant renovations, funding for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and added tampons to the list of items that can be purchased using tax-advantaged accounts.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he hopes to cut non-virus items this round, including some of the measures that are in the Republican Senate bill released this week.

“When we get to the end of the process, I would hope all of the non-Covid-related measures are out, no matter what bill they were in at the start,” he told reporters.

McConnell indicated he doesn’t want the final deal to include $1.75 billion for a new FBI headquarters in Washington, funding that’s been a priority for President Donald Trump, whose Trump International Hotel is located nearby. He cited some examples in the House-passed bill including funding for marijuana studies, a provision reducing taxes on some residents of high-tax states and “aid to illegal immigrants.”

Democrats are taking their own swings at Republican priorities with questionable ties to the virus. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin criticized the $29.4 billion in added defense spending, just $5.2 billion of which he said is related to addressing military needs related to the outbreak. He dismissed the rest as a $24 billion “wish list” for defense contractors in GOP-leaning states.

“In the midst of a life-and-death pandemic, Senator McConnell and the White House are out to prove politics is alive and well,” Durbin said.

Wiggle Room

Stripping away these costs could give lawmakers more wiggle room to spend on items more closely related to the pandemic, such as stimulus payments or unemployment benefits. But it could also make it more difficult to get some lawmakers to sign onto a bill if it doesn’t include measures important to their voters.

For example, the Republican proposal would boost farm states by providing $20 billion in aid for agriculture, delegating broad discretion on spending to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican and top ally to agriculture producers, said the matter of “germaneness“ is in the eye of the beholder. Republicans, he said, see most of what is in their bill as related to the coronavirus or national security interests.

“The agricultural pieces are directly related to the coronavirus,“ Thune said. “Germaneness really comes down to a question of where the votes are.“

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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