Joe Biden Isn't Getting a Raise and Other Budget Oddities

Congress's new spending bill is packed with "riders" that change policy on everything from the sage-grouse to D.C. marijuana laws.

Elise Amendola/AP

Congressional leaders reached a deal Tuesday night on a spending package that would fund most of the federal government through the next fiscal year. But the 1,600 pages of this sprawling, $1 trillion legislation are also stuffed with dozens of policy riders. These small—and sometimes divisive—measures generally have little to do with the budget but have their chances of passing increased by being attached to a crucial package. Senator John McCain, speaking before this bill came out, predicted it would be "jammed full of shit."

Here are some of the most significant policy riders attached to this funding bill:

A greater sage-grouse (Wikimedia)
  • The legislation will once again enact a pay freeze for the vice president and senior political appointees. Joe Biden currently takes home $230,700.
  • The amount a single donor is permitted to give to national party committees will rise dramatically, from $97,000 to as much as $777,600, depending on how the language is interpreted.
  • Democrats largely protected First Lady Michelle Obama's school-lunch nutrition standards, but Republicans did win schools more flexibility on whole grains and sodium levels. (House Republicans had pushed for a broader waiver.)
  • Although Washington, D.C., voters approved the legalization of marijuana by a margin of more than two to one in November, the spending deal will prohibit the district from legalizing the drug this year. Some D.C. activists plan to organize a protest.
  • On the other hand, the bill will ban the Department of Justice from using funds to undermine state medical-marijuana laws.
  • In a boost to Democrats, the Environmental Protection Agency will not be limited in its ability to regulate new bodies of water under the Clean Water Act, though certain farm ponds would be excluded. Democrats also reportedly blocked measures that could have severely restricted the government's ability to regulate greenhouse gases. However, Republicans secured a measure that would ban the EPA from restricting methane produced by livestock—and keeping the sage-grouse off the endangered-species list.
  • Republicans won one for the financial industry, easing regulations from the Dodd-Frank reform that required banks to set up affiliates—that were ineligible for federal benefits—in order to deal in riskier forms of derivatives trading called "swaps." Funding will also be increased for the Securities and Exchange Commission.
  • The bill includes legislation aimed at salvaging underfunded multi-employer pension plans, including a provision that would allow the cutting of benefits for millions of current retirees.
  • The Obama administration will remain banned from transferring detainees from Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. The ongoing transfer of detainees to other countries will still be allowed.
  • Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, added a provision that will ease trucker scheduling regulations designed to prevent fatigue.
  • The bill will include $1 million "to compensate ranchers for livestock killed by wolves" and $2 million to stop the spread of invasive quagga and zebra mussels into the western U.S.

Both parties have won a number of concessions. Financial-regulation rules will be influenced, as will U.S. counterterrorism policy on the day after the Senate released its report on CIA torture. The bill will also make major funding changes, like the $5.4 billion in emergency funds granted to fight Ebola in West Africa.

Yet the last-minute quarrels—as the government faces a possible shutdown—over issues like the status of a particular Western bird are indicative of the crisis-to-crisis manner in which Congress operates today. Or at least, until Thursday.