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Kennedy’s ‘spending porn’ quip demonstrates lack of buy-in, input from key senators

White House renovations, FBI building were contained in his portion of the COVID-19 spending bill

Sen. John Kennedy’s call to remove “spending porn” from a GOP COVID-19 relief package, including language on a White House construction project, raises questions about how the legislation was assembled.

“I asked the powers that be to take the spending porn out of the bills,” Kennedy, an oft-quotable Louisiana Republican and key appropriator, said leaving a Senate Republican Conference lunch meeting that featured White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

“I don’t think now is an appropriate time to build the FBI a new building. I don’t think now’s the appropriate time to renovate the West Wing of the White House,” Kennedy said. “I don’t like the provision in there to give $175 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”

Kennedy’s objection to the West House construction was particularly perplexing, since he is — at least on paper — in charge of overseeing funding for the Executive Office of the President and the General Services Administration, which handles federal buildings.

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The White House and GSA budgets budget fall within the jurisdiction of the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. Kennedy is chairman of the subcommittee.

The GSA told CQ Roll Call earlier this week that the proposal for $377 million for the Federal Buildings Fund for renovations to the West Wing and a screening facility for the adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office buildings were longstanding needs.

“The request is for a new permanent screening facility for the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, off of Pennsylvania Avenue, and an infrastructure modernization of the West Wing to provide a 21st Century, secure, and reliable facility. Both projects increase the White House campus’s ability to detect, mitigate, and alleviate external security and pandemic threats,” GSA Press Secretary Pamela Pennington said in a statement.

Pennington said the West Wing has not been fully updated since the Franklin Roosevelt administration, and GSA was prepared to start modernization work during the Obama administration, but the project was cancelled despite getting congressional approval.

“Further, this project is even more necessary given the current challenges as a result of COVID-19 and the need for modern HVAC systems to ensure proper circulation within the workspace,” Pennington said.

The proposal in the bill that has attracted the most attention is the $1.75 billion in funding for a new headquarters for the FBI within Washington, D.C. President Donald Trump has continued to tout the effort to renovate or replace the existing structure on Pennsylvania Avenue, even as Senate Republicans have called for the provision’s removal.

As drafted, the appropriations piece of the GOP-backed relief proposal would fund the FBI project through the bureau’s budget.

“There’s a lot of other spending porn in there that has no business being in the bill. I didn’t know it was in the bill. I dug it out myself. I’m embarrassed about it,” Kennedy told reporters. “This is supposed to be a coronavirus bill.”

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