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What’s in the $1.4 trillion federal spending bill

Before leaving town for the holidays, lawmakers came together to pass a huge federal spending bill that illuminates the government’s policy priorities for 2020. The deal allocates a total of $1.4 trillion to the military, education, a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border and much more. Lisa Desjardins joins Nick Schifrin to discuss where American tax dollars will be going this year.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the new year begins, Washington is in a much different place than a year ago, when the government was in the middle of the longest shutdown in history and Congress was crippled by disagreements on spending.

    Before leaving town for the holidays, lawmakers came together on a huge spending bill.

    Nick Schifrin sat down with Lisa Desjardins yesterday to learn where your tax dollars are going.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, this was a massive bill, $1.4 trillion, money to research gun violence, money for the military. And it raised the age to purchase tobacco to 21.

    But there's a lot more, a whole lot more.

    And our Capitol Hill correspondent, Lisa Desjardins, and the "NewsHour" team have been combing through 2,400 pages.

    And Lisa joins me now to examine the government's 2020 priorities.

    Lisa, let's start with a major issue, immigration, the issue that shut down the government last year. This bill has huge immigration changes.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It actually does. And not a lot of it is being talked about.

    We have talked before about the fact the president got $1.3 billion to build new border barriers. That's something that he wanted, a little less than he wanted.

    But he got something else too. This bill has fewer restrictions in where he can build it. And it also gives him more leeway in taking money from other accounts to do that.

    There is something that remains the same, however. It still limits the kind of barrier that can be built. Still can be only fencing, steel slat fencing, no concrete wall, examples like you see right now, what's already on the border.

    Overall, though, Democrats, in exchange for that border money, what did they get for the border barrier? Two new things that are notable. A new ombudsman in charge of immigration detention to oversee the conditions for detainees, and also millions of dollars to help detainees navigate the legal system and court work.

    Now, that's interesting, because that legal program for detainees is something that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions wanted to stop altogether. But, here, Democrats were able to expand that program. Thousands of more detainees in the coming year will have the ability to get some counseling to try and figure out their situation legally.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So give and take, but some fallout, especially on the Democratic side?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's the thing.

    In truth, the members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and many Democrats were not happy with this deal. Many of them voted against it for this reason. They wanted this to cap the number of detention beds. They feel like now the administration still has the ability to detain as many people as it wants.

    And there are no new requirements on exactly what conditions the detainees will be under. I want to take you back to earlier this summer, when members were touring those facilities.

    And here's the chairperson of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Joaquin Castro, speaking at one of those facilities, talking about how important changing those conditions was for them.

  • Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas:

    We came today, and we saw that the system is still broken, that people's human rights are still being abused.

    We remain very concerned about the conditions in which people are being kept.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    For members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, this is a moral issue.

    And they're concerned that this sort of detente right now that we're not talking about over immigration may actually be a normalization of things that they find unacceptable.

    For Republicans, however, they want that normalization. They want this wall to be a normal part of policy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    All right, topic number two, these spending bills do something new and headline-worthy on education.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes.

    This is something we hear people want to talk about all the time. And here is a major change.

    Let's start with the background, a big rift over this. President Trump would like to cut education spending. In fact, he proposed a 10 percent cut this year.

    I want to take you back. Here's what his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, said to Congress earlier this year about why it should be cut. She said there's just not enough money.

  • Betsy Devos:

    That it's easier to keep spending, to keep saying yes, to keep saddling tomorrow's generations with today's growing debt. But, as it's been said, the government will run out of other people's money.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Now, so, she was proposing a cut in her education funding. Democrats wanted an increase. Democrats won. And they won very big.

    In fact, this bill has a record amount of funding for education in it from the federal government. It includes more than $2 billion of an increase, especially for early education and for K-12.

    And it's interesting, Nick. Those K-12 dollars, all of these dollars, specifically go to low-income communities. They're through block grants in part. And, also, we will see tens of thousands more openings for Head Starts, especially in those low-income communities.

    Now, people know, education is still mainly funded by the states, but, here, the federal government is adding more of its own role to that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lisa, this isn't only about dollars and dollars and a whole lot of dollars, right? This is about some policy shifts in this bill as well, especially on coal miners.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It's really a big shift. This is something the federal government has never done before, permanently making up for the gap in a private pension system, in this case of coal miners.

    Now, specifically, we have to tell the bigger story here, which is we know coal mining has been on the decline overall. In fact, if you look at the numbers, Nick, it's rather astounding. Since 2008, between then and 2018, the coal industry lost 32,000 jobs, or 37 percent of its jobs, largely to bankruptcies.

    Those companies could not pay the pensions, including pensions of this man, Daymond Tucker, who we talked to in 2017, longtime coal miner, depends on his pension.

    And here's what he said at the time then, when the pension was running out.

  • Daymond Tucker:

    And it's not like we're asking for a handout or anything either. It was hard sweat work that — benefits that we negotiated. And all we want to is just what was promised to us.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Daymond Tucker is one of 100,000 miners in that same position, worried about his pension, running out, could have been last week, could have been next year.

    Instead, the federal government is permanently paying for his pension. I talked to him this week. He just retired last year. And he said, without that pension, he and his wife would have been devastated. He said it was an enormous relief to see this bill extend his pension.

    However, Nick, this is the only time the federal government has ever done this, extending federal money to pay for private pensions for one industry, the coal mining industry.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, let's zoom out.

    How much spending is this? How much spending are we actually talking about? And what does it do to the U.S.' bottom line?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is an ocean of red ink.

    All together, between this spending bill and the bill that — the budget that was set earlier this year, $2.2 trillion of red ink has been passed by this Congress and signed by this president this year.

    To give you some bigger perspective, the kind of spending that Congress governs is called discretionary spending. Since 2017, under President Trump, that kind of spending has seen an increase of about 15 percent in just a couple of years, this from a president who has said he wants to actually rein in government spanning.

    This has been one of the more dramatic increases that we have seen really in generations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And remind us, Lisa, what's the takeaway here? Why does all this matter?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This matters, Nick, because, honestly, especially in an age of gridlock, like we're in right now, this is what government does.

    Government spends money. It's thing they can agree on. This was a compromise from both sides to help each other by spending a vast array of money. And we have hit some priorities here, but there are a lot of other big policies in here. For example, this bill says the government will help Somalia restructure its debt. There's tremendous policy implications here.

    This really is what government does. Even though it may not be the most dramatic headline, it may be one of the most important.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lisa Desjardins, following the important headlines, thank you very much.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    My pleasure.

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