10+ Things Consumers Should Know About The New Federal Spending Bill

This morning, after months of slapping on, then removing, then replacing pork barrel riders on the federal Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016, we finally know exactly which add-ons made it into the omnibus spending bill and which ones didn’t.

#1: Scuttling The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Lawmakers in both the House and Senate attempted to undermine the CFPB — a Bureau created by Congress itself only a few years ago — by eliminating its direct funding source and restructuring it as a commission. Those lawmakers failed and the CFPB will continue to exist as it is — at least until the next bank-funded attempt to scuttle it.

#2: Limiting Banks’ “Get Out Of Jail Free” Card
As we mentioned recently, certain riders sought to prevent the CFPB from implementing new rules that would limit the use of forced arbitration — which allows companies to effectively break the law by taking away consumers’ right to sue and to join together in class actions — by banks, credit card companies, and other creditors. These riders also failed to make the final cut.

#3: Neutering Net Neutrality
Riders intended to circumvent the legal system and preempt the FCC from enforcing the 2015 Open Internet Order (aka “net neutrality”) are not in the final omnibus.

The final spending bill also drops the rider that would have preempted the FCC from any sort of rate regulation on broadband services. While the FCC has said it will not set rates for these newly regulated services, it will allow consumers to challenge, on a case-by-case basis, allegedly unfair or unreasonable rates.

A number of high-profile Internet companies — both on the content and infrastructure sides of the business — recently called on Congress to drop this rider, even though some of them would benefit from a total lack of regulation on rates.

#4: Holding For-Profit Colleges Accountable
Lobbyists and lawyers representing the multibillion-dollar for-profit college industry — which produces a higher percentage of student loan defaulters and has a higher dropout rate than non-profit schools — have been fighting tooth-and-nail to stop the enforcement of the Dept. of Education’s new “gainful employment” rules, which require that schools demonstrate that a certain percentage of their students are able to obtain paying jobs in their trained fields.

Having failed to prevent the rules from being drafted (though it took two attempts by the DOE to get it sort-of right), and having failed in the courtroom, the for-profit industry helped introduce riders to the omnibus bill that would have blocked the DOE from implementing the gainful employment rules. But sanity won out over campaign funds, and no such riders made their way to the final bill.

#5: Airline Ticket Transparency:
The Dept. of Transportation is in the process of drafting rules that require companies to display any fees that would be added to the ticket price, and to explain how airline tickets are displayed when a customer searches for certain types of tickets online. But a Senate rider sought to undermine this rule by severely restricting the DOT’s ability to enforce it for most online ticketing sites. This rider did not make it to the gate on time and was left behind to wander the concourse.

#6: Super-Long Tractor-Trailers & Sleepy Drivers
You know those long trucks hauling two cargo trailers? A rider was attached to the omnibus with the intention of compelling all states to allow so-called “Double 33s” — trucks carrying two, 33-foot long trailers — on highways. Some believe that the existing double trailers on the road already pose enough of safety hazard, but the combined length of those trailers would exceed current limits for commercial trucks by 10 feet.

Following opposition from safety advocates and law enforcement groups, like the State Highway Patrol Association, the rider did not make it.

“Today, Congress put the safety of all motorists before the special interest agenda of a few select trucking and shipping companies,” says Jackie Gillan, President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, one of the groups that argued against this rider.

However, Gillan notes that the omnibus bill include an extension of the “tired truckers” provision from last year’s spending bill.

“This provision takes away truck drivers ‘weekends off’ and pushes them to work up to 82 hours a week,” says Gillan. “Annually 4,000 people are killed and another 100,000 more are injured in crashes involving a large truck, and fatigue is a major factor and well-known crash cause.”

#7: Genetically Modified Food Labeling
A rider that would have pre-empted states from having laws that require the labeling of genetically engineered or genetically modified food did not make it into the spending bill.

In fact, the bill does include another rider that directs the FDA to come up with some sort of labeling for the recently approved, genetically engineered AquAdvantage salmon. When the FDA approved this product earlier this month (the first of its kind in the U.S.), it said that special labeling was not required because there was no significant nutritional difference between the GE salmon and traditional farmed salmon.

#8: Approval Of New Tobacco Products
One rider aimed to expedite the process for approving potentially thousands of new tobacco and nicotine-delivery products — everything from e-cigarettes to cigars — without FDA approval. This also failed to make the cut.

#9: Doing Business With Marijuana Sellers
In states where marijuana is legal and regulated, many federally insured banks are still reluctant to do business with these businesses because the product has not been legalized by the federal government. One rider explicitly tried to block banks from any commercial activities with a pot seller in these states, but the rider did not succeed.

#10: Providing Solid Financial Advice

The House version of the omnibus bill included a rider that blocked funding for a “fiduciary responsibility” rule drafted by the Dept. of Labor. This rule is designed to ensure that
financial advisers are providing advice in the best interests of their clients, rather than advice that is better for the adviser’s bottom line.

Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America says this rider to block that rule was the result of one of the most aggressive lobbying campaigns in recent memory.

“Had they succeeded in getting a policy rider included in this must-pass bill, hopes that workers and retirees would finally get the protections they deserve when they turn to financial professionals for retirement investment advice would have been dashed,” says Roper.

#11: Where’s My Beef From?
One questionable rider that did make it into the omnibus bill repeals mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rules for beef and pork coming into the U.S. Supporters of this rider argue that the current rules are in violation of World Trade Organization standards and could result in $1 billion or more in trade retaliations. Interestingly, it appears that this repeal does not apply to poultry.

Our colleagues at Consumers Union opposed this rider, saying that a response to the WTO’s decision shouldn’t be done through the hasty process of a must-pass spending bill.

“An increasing amount of our food supply comes from outside the United States — not just from Canada and Mexico, but from China, Chile and many other countries,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, earlier this month. “These labels provide consumers with important information that allows them to make informed decisions about what they put on their plates.”

#12: Delayed Menu Labeling
Grocery stores and food retailers get a 1-year reprieve on the new mandatory menu labeling requirements, thanks to a rider that did make the cut.

This story is a work in progress. We’re still scouring through the omnibus bill and may be adding more things as the day goes on.

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