coronavirus stimulus

7 Surprisingly Good Policies Buried in the Stimulus-Omnibus Bill

The legislative climate is a bit healthier than it looks. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

On Tuesday afternoon, Congress unveiled a 5,593-page pile of legislation — and then passed it hours later. This did not leave America’s elected representatives (let alone, its citizens) much time to scrutinize the details of the $2.3 trillion COVID stimulus–omnibus spending bill hybrid. The anti-democratic nature of this process earned it criticism from the left, while the spendthrift, pork-laden nature of the bill consternated small-government conservatives.

And yet, as insane and undemocratic as it is for our Congress to wait until the federal government is about to shutdown (in the middle of a world-historic pandemic) — and then exploit the ensuing self-made crisis to cram years’ worth of legislating into a single afternoon — this nevertheless represents a marked improvement on the body’s previous modus operandi (namely, passing scant legislation save expansions of the military-industrial complex, in between bouts of debating year-old New York Times Magazine articles).

The giant policy dump did enable Republicans to get a bunch of giveaways to plutocrats through Congress without much debate. But it also allowed Democrats (and some Republicans) to send a bunch of worthwhile, long-delayed reforms to the president’s desk, before conservative media had time to demagogue them. Here are seven of the package’s pleasantest surprises.

1) The most significant climate-change legislation in at least a decade (and arguably ever).

No climate-change bill will ever be both (1) tolerable to Mitch McConnell and (2) remotely adequate to the scale of the problem. But the provisions that did just make it past the Senate Majority Leader are surprisingly robust. Among them: $35 billion for zero-emission energy-technology research and development (including wind, solar, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage); an extension of tax credits for wind and solar investment, which were expected to expire; funding for low-income families to reduce their energy bills (and consumption) through home weatherization; and a plan to gradually eliminate the use of climate-warming hydrofluorocarbons in air conditioners and refrigerators.

Taken together, the bill’s subsidies for green energy may end up exceeding the $90 billion passed in Barack Obama’s stimulus package, which contributed to a drastic reduction in the cost – and thus, increase in the use – of renewables over the past decade. Those investments, combined with the phaseout of one small but destructive category of greenhouse gases, has earned the legislation plaudits from the World Resources Institute and Natural Resources Defense Council, among other climate organizations.

2) An end to most forms of surprise medical billing.

The U.S. health-care system subordinates the welfare of America’s least fortunate people to the profitability of its most parasitic enterprises in a rich variety of ways. But the practice of surprise medical building is among the most grotesque.

In most other developed countries, a person whose leg was just run over by a car will find herself with many pressing concerns — but whether the nearest hospital is in her insurer’s provider network will not be one of them. In the United States, by contrast, we have a long tradition of compounding the suffering of our least fortunate by saddling them with tens of thousands of dollars in medical debt if they neglect to consult Cigna about which emergency rooms in their area are in-network as they lie bleeding on the pavement.

Roughly 20 percent of all ER visits in the U.S. lead to an out-of-network insurance charge. What’s more, even if you do your due diligence — and instruct your ambulance driver to take you to the in-network hospital across town in between bouts of coughing blood — you’ll still get hit with an out-of-network bill 16 percent of the time because you can still receive treatment from an out-of-network physician at an in-network emergency room.

Lawmakers in both parties have been trying to curb this piracy for years, but private-equity firms, and some doctor and hospital lobbies successfully impeded such efforts. In the omnibus, however, Congress finally passed an imperfect but significant reform: As Vox’s Dylan Scott writes, “Surprise billing would be barred for out-of-network emergency care, for most out-of-network care at in-network facilities, and for air ambulances. The patients will be asked to pay only their in-network obligations for the care they received, and that is the end of it for them.” As this phrasing suggests, out-of-network automotive ambulances will still be able to spring surprise charges on the perilously unwell. Nevertheless, the provisions represent a rare victory for basic humanity over sociopathic rent-seeking in American health policy.

3) The most significant anti–money laundering reform in decades.

At present, any foreign kleptocrat or narcotics trafficker can stash their ill-gotten gains in the United States with one weird trick: Just stuff your loot into the bank account of an anonymous shell company. Unlike most other nations, the U.S. allows individuals to start a “corporation” that has no workers or products — only a bunch of hidden assets — without disclosing their identity to authorities.

The omnibus would change this. If signed into law, creators of shell companies will be compelled to tell the U.S. government their names, and other identifying information. The measure is aimed principally at curtailing organized crime, and was sold as a vital national-security protection. But by establishing greater financial disclosure, it also brings us a little closer to achieving the progressive dream (and conservative nightmare) of America using its post-9/11 financial-surveillance apparatus to police global tax evasion, which denies the world’s nation states trillions of dollars in rightful revenue.

4) A simultaneous breakthrough in higher-education and criminal-justice-reform policy.

In one of the most reactionary provisions of the 1994 Crime Bill, Congress barred incarcerated students from accessing Pell Grants to finance their educations. This resulted in the defunding of in-prison learning programs. The omnibus finally reverses this policy. The higher-education portion of the bill also repeals restrictions on financial aid for college students who are convicted of a drug offense; provides $1.3 billion in financial assistance to historically black colleges and universities; and makes students who were defrauded by for-profit colleges eligible for new Pell Grants.

5) Two cool new museums.

Congress authorized the creation of two new Smithsonian museums, one dedicated to commemorating the contributions of women to American history, the other, to memorializing those of American Latinos. Advocates have been seeking such authorization for decades.

6) An expansion of rural broadband.

The limited reach of America’s broadband networks has prevented millions of Americans in rural areas from accessing high-speed internet, and the myriad opportunities for education, community, and entertainment that it provides. The omnibus-stimulus package provides $300 million for broadband deployment in underserved areas, and $1 billion worth of grants for tribal governments to invest in broadband installation, telehealth, and distance-learning initiatives.

7) Medicaid for Marshall Islanders.

The United States used the Marshall Islands as a testing ground for atomic weapons in the mid-20th century, and a site of strategic military bases ever since. To compensate the people of the region for nuking their territory — and, allegedly, deliberately exposing them to nuclear fallout for experimental purposes — the U.S. granted Marshall Islanders the right to immigrate to the United States, and avail themselves of Medicaid coverage, among other things.

But in 1996, congressional staffers apparently forgot to include Marshall Islanders in a list of groups that would retain eligibility for Medicaid under Bill Clinton’s welfare-reform law. Although this exclusion was widely described as accidental, Congress neglected to correct the error for 24 years, during which time Marshall Islanders sickened by the radiation our nukes left behind were unable to secure affordable medical care. The omnibus package finally fixes this oversight.

In an ideal world, Congress wouldn’t need to restore health benefits to the citizens of an associated state of the U.S., bar private-equity firms from bleeding the sick dry, or enable the incarcerated to rehabilitate themselves through education — much less to do these things in a single afternoon with virtually no public debate or oversight. But in our decidedly nonideal political reality, we’ve got to take what we can (hopefully still) get.

7 Surprisingly Good Policies in the Stimulus-Omnibus Bill