Waging war on smoking, for-profit colleges and tax loopholes may sound like odd subjects for the military spending bill, but not when you consider who is wielding the gavel.
In an era without earmarks
, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin has used his perch atop the powerful Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to put his stamp on several of his priorities, like increasing the accountability of for-profit schools getting federal tuition dollars through the Pentagon.
“If you’ve been bored and watched C-SPAN, you’ve probably heard me on the floor talk about this a couple times. This is serious,” the Illinois Democrat said at last week’s Appropriations Committee markup. “Corinthian Colleges is about to fail and go bankrupt. It’s going to cost the United States over a billion dollars when this for-profit school goes under.”
Avid viewers of the Senate floor have heard that speech more than once.
“What’s even worse are the students who have wasted their time at many of these for-profit colleges and wasted taxpayers’ money to take courses that lead nowhere,” he added.
The C-SPAN crowd has also heard a few recitations about the dangers of tobacco products. Durbin’s focused much of his recent criticism on electronic cigarettes, helping lead an effort by Democrats to push for increased Food and Drug Administration regulation. Tobacco has long been an issue of concern for the senator, the author of the House version of a measure banning smoking on airplanes, so, it’s no surprise that he would push to get rid of below-market prices for cigarettes at military commissaries in his second year as the Defense spending cardinal.
“The rate of addiction to tobacco products in the armed forces is dramatically higher than the rest of America,” Durbin said. “You know what I found out? We had put a provision in the law, I don’t know how many years ago, requiring that we discount the price of tobacco products for sale at exchanges and commissaries. Why would we discount the price of a product that we know is unhealthy? We want our troops to be healthy and live long lives. The discount comes out in this bill.”
Durbin has been been vocal, too, about the business tax-avoidance practice known as inversion. On Tuesday, he blasted drug-store giant Walgreens based on reports the company was contemplating such a move through acquisition of a Swiss company.
“Is ‘the corner of happy and healthy’ somewhere in the Swiss Alps?” Durbin asked in a letter.
He’s also sent a letter to pharmaceutical company AbbVie and included language in his appropriations bill that would make it tougher for inverted companies to get Defense Department contracts.
Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., expressed concern with that language, saying the tax-writing Finance Committee would be the appropriate venue for such a debate, and Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., plans to attempt action on that front.
“On a bipartisan basis, the Finance Committee must respond now. First, let’s work together to immediately cool down the inversion fever. The inversion loophole needs to be plugged now,” Wyden said Tuesday. “Second, let’s use the space created by these immediate steps to apply the indisputable, ultimate cure: comprehensive tax reform.”
But at the end of the day, what goes in the Defense bill is still, to a great extent, driven by “prerogatives of the chairman,” as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., put it.
Should defense observers expect more of the same? A fellow senior appropriator, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, seems to think so. She said Durbin might be further enticed to put his priorities in the must-pass bill because it’s so hard to get anything else through the chamber.
“The conditions of this place now are very rough. It’s very hard to get anything done,” Feinstein said. “So I think everybody is looking how you can make a difference, which is part of why we run for office.”
The Pentagon spending bill, which for fiscal 2015 totals $549.3 billion, has long been a vehicle for carrying other priorities — successfully and otherwise.
For instance, since fiscal 1992, Congress has included a breast cancer research program in the Defense bill. The research effort came to be championed by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and then-Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, R-N.Y.
And the late Ted Stevens of Alaska once attempted to use the Defense spending bill as a vehicle for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, a clearly non-germane move that fell apart on the Senate floor after then-Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., famously said of Stevens: “I love him, but I love the Senate more.”
Before the spending bill’s release, Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain said he was generally pleased with the relationship Durbin has with authorizers.
“I think the relationship has been good. We’ve all known each other a long time. … Dick Durbin and I came to the House together in 1982. … We have a good working relationship,” McCain said. “In my opinion, better than I had with his predecessors.”
McCain, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, had well-documented disagreements over the years with chairmen such as Stevens and Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii.
Sen. Jack Reed — who serves on both the Appropriations and Armed Services committees, and is a former Army Ranger — said he was pleased with the work Durbin has done in succeeding the legendary Inouye.
“I think he, first of all, he focused on major program elements within the Defense appropriations bill, and he is very comprehensive in the review. He’s made, I think, sound judgment,” the Rhode Island Democrat said. “And then he’s also been able to deal, through the Defense Department, with other issues like military education.”
Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri doubted, however, that some of Durbin’s favorite items would survive negotiations with the House.
“Most of it is not likely to wind up on the president’s desk,” he predicted.