By ROBERT PEAR
WASHINGTON — Health insurance companies preserved their tax breaks. Farmers and ranchers were spared having to report on pollution from manure. Tourist destinations like Las Vegas benefited from a travel promotion program.
Also buried in the giant spending bill that cleared the Senate on Saturday and is headed to President Obama for his signature were provisions that prohibit the federal government from requiring less salt in school lunches and allow schools to obtain exemptions from whole-grain requirements for pasta and tortillas.
The watered-down standards for school meals were a setback for the first lady, Michelle Obama, who had vowed to fight “until the bitter end” for tougher nutrition standards. But they were a victory for food companies and some local school officials, who had sought changes in regulations that are taking effect over several years.
When an omnibus spending bill pops onto the floor of the House or the Senate in the waning days of a congressional session, some lawmakers invariably express surprise and outrage at special-interest provisions stuffed into the package.
Representative Marcy Kaptur, Democrat of Ohio and a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, criticized the $1.1 trillion spending measure as “a Christmas tree bill,” decorated with “dangerous and unwelcome, nongermane riders.”
Such favors often have a long lineage. Lobbyists and lawmakers have, in many cases, been working on them for months or years. Some of this year’s provisions originated as free-standing bills, languished on their own and were then revived in the spending package. Others block regulations that have been proposed, adopted and sometimes upheld in court.
The School Nutrition Association, representing cafeteria directors, welcomed the bill’s language on sodium and whole grains. The lower sodium standards would have been “extremely difficult to achieve,” and the government needs more research before compelling schools to make such costly changes, said the association, which receives financial support from food companies.
Republicans like Representative Harold Rogers of Kentucky, the committee chairman, said the riders were needed to halt wasteful spending and “overreach” by agencies that generate rules harmful to the economy.
A typically arcane provision of the bill provides relief to nonprofit Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans, which have special tax breaks that were threatened by the Affordable Care Act.
Blue Cross is not mentioned by name in the relevant section of the 2015 spending bill, titled “Modification of treatment of certain health organizations.” But the deduction in question is available only to Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans, which have been lobbying Congress for a clarification since the Affordable Care Act was signed in 2010.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association scored several victories that require the government to keep its regulatory hands off farms and ranches.
The bill says the government cannot require farmers to report “greenhouse gas emissions from manure management systems.” Nor can it require ranchers to obtain greenhouse gas permits for “methane emissions” produced by bovine flatulence or belching. The Environmental Protection Agency says on its website that “globally, the agriculture sector is the primary source” of methane emissions.
The spending bill requires the E.P.A. to withdraw a new rule defining how the Clean Water Act applies to certain agricultural conservation practices. It also prevents the Army Corps of Engineers from regulating farm ponds and irrigation ditches under the Clean Water Act.
“This is a major victory for farmers and ranchers, who consistently tell many of us that they are concerned about the potential of the E.P.A. and the Army Corps of Engineers’ overreach into their operations,” Representative Mike Simpson, Republican of Idaho, said.
The bill renews a travel promotion program championed by the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, and by Las Vegas casinos.
“From the Las Vegas Strip to our pristine natural treasures like Lake Tahoe, tourists from all over the world want to visit Nevada,” Mr. Reid said, and the legislation encourages them to do so.
“Last I checked,” Mr. Cruz said, “casinos were very profitable endeavors that didn’t need the taxpayers helping them out.”
The bill provides more than $550 billion for national defense, including money for warplanes, missiles and submarines. But mundane military matters also drew attention. The bill is accompanied by a “joint explanatory statement” that gives thousands of directives to federal agencies.
One directive deals literally with boots on the ground. It orders the Defense Logistics Agency to re-examine the way it defines “small business” when buying boots and other military footwear. A supplier can qualify for advantages as a small business if it has no more than 1,000 employees. The number doubled in 2012.
Lawmakers fear that the new size standards could harm “true small businesses” and “the domestic supply base for military footwear.” Michigan’s congressional delegation sought the legislative directive in response to concerns expressed by a Michigan company, Bates Footwear, which supplies combat boots and dress shoes to the military.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit research group that tracks federal spending, said the bill bestowed favors on all sorts of constituencies.
“Authors of the bill and lobbyists behind these provisions know they are in there,” Mr. Ellis said. “But the public will not find out about most of them for weeks or months, if ever.”
Congress supposedly forswore spending earmarks several years ago, after federal largess led to several scandals. But lawmakers can still steer money in less conspicuous ways.
For example, the 2015 spending bill authorizes additional money for an unnamed “heritage area” specified in Section 157 of title I of Public Law 106-291. That section of the law, enacted 14 years ago, established a national heritage area in Wheeling, W.Va., to celebrate the area’s role in American history.
via In Final Spending Bill, Salty Food and Belching Cows Are Winners | New York Times.