Our expectations of Congress have sunk pretty low when not shutting down the government is hailed as a triumph, especially when the price is 2,000-plus-pages of spending increases and tax cuts that no one had time to read, never mind debate.
But Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan and President Barack Obama nearly broke their arms patting themselves and each other on the backs last week upon passing the so-called omnibus and closing shop for the holidays.
And, truly, it is good news that the $1.1 trillion measure got through without a grandstanding-induced government shutdown. The deal also was clean of riders that would have defunded Planned Parenthood, blocked Syrian refugees or put longer trucks on the highways, also good.
All the special favors and tax breaks that were tucked into the bulging stocking are still being discovered. But the $622 billion in known tax cuts, combined with the new spending, are expected to increase the federal deficit by a half-trillion dollars.
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The tax cuts were not offset by spending reductions, as good old-fashioned pork once again lubricated the wheels of government. A billion dollar loophole for the gambling and hotel industries got in with Senate DemocraticLeader Harry Reid’s help, reported Monday by The New York Times, while Sen. Thad Cochran directed the Coast Guard to build a $640 million cutter in his home state of Mississippi that the Coast Guard says it does not need.
The $90 million that Rep. Hal Rogers secured for Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania for reclaiming abandoned mine lands is very much needed and not nearly enough.
The $90 million pilot project, aimed at linking reclamation and economic development, should serve as a model for reforming the Abandoned Mine Lands program in 2016 and putting the program’s large surplus to work in mining communities that are suffering from the coal industry’s current decline and its legacy of environmental damage.
Also good news, a $50 million increase for the Appalachian Regional Commission, $19 million for training and hiring people who’ve lost coal-industry jobs and $15 million in economic assistance to coal communities. Some are hoping that $444 million in the bill will bring a federal prison and 300 jobs to Letcher County though others wish that money could go into creating more and better jobs.
McConnell sent out a press release touting all the ways Kentucky would benefit from the tax cuts and spending measures. But one group of Kentuckians is excluded from the holiday cheer. Despite strong bipartisan support in both chambers, a plan for shoring up pension and health-care benefits for retired coal miners did not make it into the final bill.
About 3,000 United Mine Workers of America retirees in Kentucky are at immediate risk of losing their health-care benefits because of Patriot Coal’s bankruptcy. Without some action, more retired miners and their widows will be at risk as more coal companies go under.
The nation pledged to the coal miners’ union in 1946 that, in exchange for their dangerous but critical work, miners’ pensions and health care would always be secure. Letting the UMWA pension fund collapse would be foolhardy as well as inhumane, costing taxpayers more in the long run while also endangering the government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.
But the UMWA endorsed McConnell’s Democratic opponent in 2014; non-union coal companies, such as Joe Craft’s Alliance Resource Partners, are thought to oppose the measure.
In this season of giving, McConnell naturally wants to thank Craft for the millions of dollars he’s given Republican candidates and committees. But McConnell should find a way that does not deprive retired miners and their widows of benefits they were promised and earned.