Congress has been working to pass a huge spending bill to fund the federal government through September. Known as the “omnibus,” the measure has a hefty price tag – $1.3 trillion. Legislation like this tends to become a Christmas tree; a lot gets thrown on. But this bill is notable for some things it doesn’t contain: It’s free of efforts to water down or repeal the Johnson Amendment, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s school voucher boondoggle is nowhere to be found.
The Johnson Amendment, a provision in federal law that protects the integrity of houses of worship by keeping them out of partisan elections, has been targeted by President Donald Trump and some far-right members of Congress (aided and abetted by Religious Right groups). In fact, Trump vowed to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2017, and some members of Congress aggressively pushed to implement his plan in the 2017 tax bill. Americans United and our allies fended them off then, but we were braced for another assault. Indeed, we had been hearing some scuttlebutt that an effort to repeal or neuter the Johnson Amendment might resurface in the omnibus.
It did not, and we’re glad.
The news on the voucher front is also positive. DeVos and Trump wanted to allocate $250 million for voucher programs. Most of that money would have ended up in the coffers of private religious schools that aren’t accountable to the taxpayers, that teach controversial things and that have the ability to discriminate when hiring staff. At least for now, that won’t be happening.
DeVos is hardly a good cheerleader for her cause. Her recent appearance on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” during which she appeared to have little grasp of education-related policy, was widely panned as a disaster. (“Train wreck” was one of the more polite terms used to describe it.) A few days later, DeVos testified before a House subcommittee where she was grilled specifically about vouchers.
As The Washington Post reported, DeVos sought to slash the Education Department’s budget and ax a number of programs that help low-income students, all while pursuing a costly voucher plan. Congress rebuffed her, and the omnibus actually boosts department spending.
The bill does continue funding for a controversial (and ineffective) voucher plan that was forced on the District of Columbia by Congress in 2003, but the omnibus contains no money for new voucher plans. In this unsettled political climate, that’s definitely a victory.
We’re not quite out of the woods just yet. The omnibus has passed the House and Senate, but Trump is threatening to veto the entire bill because he doesn’t like some of its policies concerning immigration. (If he does that, the federal government will shut down starting at midnight.) Also, with a bill this size – it’s 2,322 pages long – troubling things could be tucked away in the corners, so our Legislative Department is doing a deep dive just to make sure there are no other troubling provisions.
We know that even in the wake of these victories, we still face many battles to come. Americans United is eager to keep you informed about them. If you haven’t yet signed up for our alerts, you can do so on our website.