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The Budget Deal: This Is Who They Are

Consider these the early slush of the coming Republican winter, the first returns on investment for their donors. Tucked into the 1,603-page bill to fund the government -- that no legislator will read -- are cankerous riders, foreshadowing what is to come.
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The first signs of the November election returns are apparent in the $1 trillion spending bill that the House of Representatives passed last night in Washington.

This spending bill was forged with resurgent Republicans on their best behavior. They are still a minority in the Senate in the lame-duck session. Their leaders exercised adult supervision over the wingnuts, rejecting calls for a government shutdown over immigration because Obama. They largely adhered to the budget deal cut last year on spending limits, and agreed to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year through next October (with the exception of Homeland Security because Obama), putting off real changes until they assume the majority in the new Congress next year.

But good behavior and adult supervision didn't stop them from adding revealing signature riders and last-minute deals. Consider these the early slush of the coming Republican winter, the first returns on investment for their donors. Tucked into the 1,603-page bill to fund the government -- that no legislator will read -- are cankerous riders, foreshadowing what is to come. They couldn't help themselves; this is who they are.

Some of these -- like the Wall Street giveaway and the big money reforms -- received national attention, as Senator Elizabeth Warren and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi led a rear guard action against the fix -- taking on not only Republicans but the White House in the process. Some have slipped through with little notice. But a snapshot reveals just how the rules get rigged to benefit the few.

The spending bill includes measures that:

Open more gambling tables on Wall Street. In a provision written by Citibank lobbyists, the bill would rollback part of the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, giving banks the ability to use taxpayer guaranteed deposits to gamble on derivatives, the exotic instruments central to the Wall Street wilding the blew up the economy. Sen. Warren was right to blow the whistle on this. The big banks once more get to play you as the sap: they can gamble with other people's money and pocket any winnings, knowing that you, dear taxpayers, guarantee to cover their losses. The big banks get a big return on their investment in Republican legislators in the last election.

Expand Big Money in politics. The measure, slipped into the bill with no hearings or public debate, increases the amount the rich can give to party committees tenfold (to $3.1 million a couple per election cycle). This increases the clout of the super-rich and dims somewhat the influence of the only very rich. Not much of a difference, but, hey, it's the principle of the thing.

Embolden tax cheaters. The bill will cut IRS funding by $345.6 million, reducing it below its level in 2008. This perversely cuts the ability of the IRS to collect the taxes that are owed, bringing needed revenue to the government. It is a green light to tax cheats. Republicans will wait until next year to try to cut taxes on the rich and corporations. So this year they settled for making it easier to cheat by weakening the cop of the tax beat.

Abet the poisoning our air, water and land. The bill will cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency for the fifth straight year, leaving down by more than 20 percent since 2010. EPA staffing is now down to where it was in 1989 when climate change meant summer was turning to fall. It limits funding for research into renewable energy while adding resources to accelerate on and offshore oil and gas development. And it prohibits the administration from levying sensible fees on domestic oil and gas producers. The Koch brothers collect the first returns on their investment.

Cut promised income for current retirees. In a measure likely to be a very big deal in retrospect, for the first time, the bill authorizes breaking the promise to those already retired, allowing cuts in pension benefits for those in multi-employer pension plans. Some of the plans look to be going broke. Instead of guaranteeing the benefits to those already retired -- who have no way of making up lost income -- the bill will allow harsh cuts in benefits, protecting retirees only over the age of 80. This sets a chilling precedent for Social Security and other contractual retirement promises. The Congress will bail out the banks when their excesses blow up the economy, but they won't protect retirees who are casualties of that debacle.

Give the military more money and help the vulnerable less The Pentagon gets $575 billion from this spending bill (including $64 billion for operations overseas); all other programs get $492 billion. We'll continue to throw money at fancy jets the Pentagon doesn't want, while starving investments in vulnerable kids we can't do without.

Calling it the worst of "government for the rich and powerful," Senator Elizabeth Warren led a revolt against the Wall Street deal, to the dismay of legislators desperate to pass it and get out of town. Those defending the deal argue simply that if you don't pass this, what comes next will be worse. The House passed the bill, with Pelosi marshaling the vast majority of Democrats against. The Senate has two days to vote, with a government shutdown threatened if it doesn't pass. The Campaign for America's Future and other groups are calling for Senators to vote no.

This bipartisan behemoth is an augury of what is come. This budget was largely negotiated before the elections. Republicans chose to be on their best behavior in the lame-duck session. But even then, they left their mark. They can't help it. This is who they are.