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Late on Monday night, Congress approved a $900bn stimulus package which will deliver financial aid to millions of families and businesses facing economic distress from coronavirus pandemic. Though far smaller than a bill lawmakers passed at the outset of the pandemic, earlier this year, the measure is one the largest pieces of legislation in US history.
The product of frenzied negotiations, the package was paired with a $1.4tn spending bill to fund the federal government through the end of the fiscal year, 30 September 2021. In response to a deepening economic and public health crisis, the rescue bill authorizes direct payments of $600 to those who earn less than $75,000 and extends supplemental unemployment benefits to $300 for 11 weeks.
Tucked into the hulking 5,593-page bill, however, are a range of initiatives and obscure provisions that appear to have little to do with fortifying a fragile economy or keeping the government open.
New Smithsonian museums
The legislation authorizes the establishment of two new museums in Washington: the American Women’s History Museum and the National Museum of the American Latino. Such approval, however, is only the first step in a years-long process to build the museums on the National Mall.
Despite broad support for the museums, earlier this month Mike Lee, a Republican senator from Utah, blocked legislation that would have approved their establishment, arguing that the US doesn’t need “segregated, separate-but-equal museums for hyphenated identity groups”.
According to the bill, the Latino museum will see visitors “learn about Latino contributions to life, art, history and culture in the United States” while serving “as a gateway for visitors to view other Latino exhibitions, collections, and programming” at institutions across the country. The women’s museum will “recognize diverse perspectives on women’s history and contributions”.
Support for the Dalai Lama
In a shot across the bow at China, the bill reaffirms the right of the Tibetan people to reincarnate the Dalai Lama. China regards the exiled spiritual leader, who continues to advocate for a degree of Tibetan self-rule, as a threat to its sovereignty.
The text of the legislation warns: “Interference by the Government of the People’s Republic of China or any other government in the process of recognizing a successor or reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama and any future Dalai Lamas would represent a clear abuse of the right to religious freedom of Tibetan Buddhists and the Tibetan people.” The legislation also directs the secretary of state to establish a US consulate in Tibet’s main city, Lhasa.
According to Reuters, the political head of Tibetans in exile welcomed the news as a “victory for the Tibetan freedom struggle”. China accused the US of meddling.
An end to ‘surprise medical billing’
Lawmakers also included an end to this costly practice, which sees patients unexpectedly receive care from providers not covered by their insurers, thereby facing bills far higher than they would typically pay. As many as one in six emergency room visits or in-hospital stays resulted in at least one out-of-network bill in 2017, according to analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Consumers will be relieved to see the practice effectively banned under legislation which limits what patients can be billed for out-of-network services. Now, doctors and hospitals will have to work with insurers to settle on costs.
Although members of both parties have long denounced the practice, efforts to ban it had been thwarted by lobbying from insurers and healthcare providers.
The right to reproduce Smokey Bear
The bill repeals a provision of federal law criminalizing unauthorized use of Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl, famous mascots of a US Forest Service public safety campaign concerning wildfires and pollution. Previously, illegally reproducing images of Smokey Bear was punishable by up to six months in prison.
Heath benefits for Marshall Islanders
The bill corrects a 25-year-old drafting error that denied thousands of islanders access to federal health benefits they were promised after resettling in the US.
Lawmakers agreed to allow Marshall Islanders and other islanders covered by the Compact of Free Association to sign up for Medicaid, after a 1996 welfare reform changed the categories qualifying for federal aid and effectively barred them.
Democrats led by members from Hawaii have fought for nearly two decades to restore Medicaid eligibility for islanders, without Republican support. They argued that the US broke its commitment to provide medical coverage to islanders who moved to the US after the military used their homeland to test nuclear bombs.
“This is a ‘shining moment’ at a time of darkness for our country,” Hawaii senator Mazie Hirono said after the bill passed. “Let’s savor it.”
Any other business?
There were plenty of other surprises, including $2bn for the new US space force and a tax break for corporate meal expenses, panned as the “three-martini lunch” but a priority for Donald Trump. Senator Bernie Sanders, who pushed for bigger direct payments, called the inclusion of the provisions “pathetic”.
Racehorse owners also received a tax break, while $35m was allotted for groups which “implement education in sexual risk avoidance”, which the legislation defines as “voluntarily refraining from non-marital sexual activity”.
“This is why Congress needs time to actually read this package before voting on it,” New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter, responding to a report that the bill makes illegal streaming a felony.
“Members of Congress have not read this bill. It’s over 5,000 pages, arrived at 2pm today, and we are told to expect a vote on it in two hours. This isn’t governance. It’s hostage-taking.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: New museums and Smokey Bear: what’s in the $900bn US stimulus package? | US politics