WASHINGTON — Congress on Monday passed a $1.4 trillion government spending measure that includes $900 billion in coronavirus relief, but is also chock-full of miscellaneous provisions, a massive year-end bill after months of inaction.
The 5,593-page bill funds the government through September 2021 and provides $600 stimulus checks for qualifying families and individuals, enhanced unemployment and support for small businesses. It also touches on Smokey the Bear, horse racing and the Dalai Lama.
Some of these quirky provisions were in bills that had been introduced in Congress earlier in the year. But lawmakers often delay passing bills until the end of the year when they can be rolled into one massive spending bill as members face pressure to fund the government before heading home for the holidays.
“It’s the end of the year, everything gets dumped in, and that’s the best way to get passage. It highlights how hard it is to get anything through,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who has worked with congressional leaders.
“But when you get to this point — this bill wasn’t written, it was basically compiled. You’re taking things that have passed from one chamber or another and putting them all in so it has enough support.”
The final text of the bill was not released until shortly before votes were held, making it impossible for lawmakers to familiarize themselves with the entirety of what they were voting on.
“Members of Congress have not read this bill. It’s over 5000 pages, arrived at 2pm today, and we are told to expect a vote on it in 2 hours. This isn’t governance. It’s hostage-taking,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., tweeted.
Here are some of the provisions that made it into the bill, which is expected to be signed by President Donald Trump in the coming days.
Protection from surprise medical billing
The spending bill includes bipartisan language that would prevent Americans from most surprise medical bills, a practice that costs consumers millions of dollars annually and sends some spiraling into debt.
Surprise billing occurs when, during a hospitalization, an out-of-network provider is unexpectedly involved in a patient’s care, charging a fee typically larger than what a health care plan covers. Under the new rules, health care providers would have to work with insurers to settle on a price.
This change will go into effect in 2022. The rule does not apply to charges for ground ambulances.
The bill has a section that reaffirms the rights of Tibetans to choose a successor to their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and states that the Chinese government should not interfere in the process.
Economic and visa sanctions would be imposed against Chinese officials who interfere in the Dalai Lama’s succession.
Fake “Smokey Bear” no longer a crime
The bill repeals a handful of oddball crimes that are rarely enforced, including a law that makes it a crime to misuse certain emblems such as the U.S. Forest Service’s “Smokey Bear” and “Woodsy Owl” characters, the Interior Department’s Golden Eagle insignia, the 4-H Club emblem and the Swiss Confederation’s coat of arms.
Although people who use those symbols would no longer face jail time, they could still be subject to civil lawsuits.
People who transport water hyacinths, alligator grass or water chestnut plants across state lines would also no longer face up to six months in prison.
The bill limits the use of a potent greenhouse gas in refrigerants and air conditioners and provides tax incentives for wind and solar energy. The bill also allocates money for new research and development programs aimed at tackling climate change.
It is the most significant federal investment in green technology in a decade.
Horse racing safety
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose home state of Kentucky has one of the most famous horse racing tracks in the world, pushed for a provision to be included that would create national medication and safety standards for the horse racing industry as well as an anti-doping and racetrack safety program.
The horse racing industry has been under scrutiny in recent years in part due to concerns that over-medication and doping was leading to the breakdown and deaths of race horses.
Two new Smithsonian museums
There could be two new museums coming to downtown Washington, thanks to the spending bill: the Women’s History Museum and the National Museum of the American Latino.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, blocked legislation earlier this month that would establish the museums, saying that “the last thing we need is to further divide an already divided nation within an array of separate but equal museums of hyphenated identity groups.”
Illegal streaming becomes a felony
It could soon be a felony for business to make money by pirating large amounts of copyrighted content and illegally streaming it, with the potential of up to 10 years in prison.
The bill is not meant to target people who use illegal streaming services, but rather those that pirate content to make money.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who first introduced the bill, has said that the pirating industry costs the U.S. economy nearly $30 billion every year.
The group Fight for our Future, which opposes internet restrictions, also pointed to a provision in the bill they said would allow the federal government to fine people $30,000 for sharing memes with copyrighted images.
The group’s executive director said the provision “will threaten ordinary Internet users with huge fines for everyday online activity.”
The U.S. Postal Service — already facing a myriad of criticism for its handling of election ballots and holiday packages — would no longer be allowed to mail vaping products and e-cigarettes under the new bill.
Border wall funding continues
Roughly $1.3 billion would be allocated to build Trump’s southern border wall, the same amount that was given to the project last year.
Lawmakers have held up legislation in the past over disagreements over border wall funding, leading to a government shutdown in 2018.