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Ideological earmarks litter spending bill; vanity portraits for Congress nixed

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Congress' spending bill funds the National Endowment for the Arts, but one art project finally is getting cut off: the official portrait paintings of presidents, Cabinet secretaries and high-ranking members of Congress.

For the first time, the bill bans taxpayer money from financing official portrait paintings, many of which can't even be viewed by the public. That is one of a number of "policy riders" that negotiators attached to the massive bill, most designed to tweak Obama administration policies on items including coal and incandescent light bulbs.

Call them ideological earmarks — the provisions House Republicans demanded to garner enough conservative votes to pass the bill.

A decade ago, those votes would have been earned by old-style earmarks — the pork-barrel projects in a lawmaker's state or district. With those earmarks essentially banned, leaders earn votes by giving lawmakers ideology-based talking points to take back home.

"Instead of saying, 'Hey, it's the best we could get,' you can go back to voters and say we got a bunch of good stuff in this, it's positive, it's moving in the right direction," said Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist who predicted that the practice will increase. "This is a foreshadowing. When the Republicans take the Senate, this is going to become a fairly routine feature of life."

The House and Senate are rushing to pass the $1.1 trillion bill this week, ahead of a self-imposed deadline when government funding expires.

Unlike October, when ideological battles over Obamacare led to a government shutdown, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are looking for reasons to vote for the deal.

The agreement implements last month's budget deal, eliminating some of the sequester budget cuts and expanding funding for defense, which Republicans wanted, and for domestic programs, which Democrats fought to keep.

"As with any compromise, not everyone will like everything in this bill, but in this divided government a critical bill such as this simply cannot reflect the wants of only one party," said Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. "We believe this is a good, workable measure that will serve the American people well, and we encourage all our colleagues to support it this week."

President Obama offered support Tuesday, issuing a statement of administration policy saying he wants "swift passage."

The taxpayer funding for portraits has become an issue in recent years after The Washington Times and other news outlets reported about the high costs of some of the paintings and found that they often aren't even available for public viewing.

In 2013, the federal government signed contracts for at least $200,000 worth of portraits, including $25,000 for a painting of the Treasury Department secretary and $40,500 for a portrait of the Marine Corps commandant.

Rep. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican who sponsored what he called the EGO Act, or Eliminating Government-funded Oil paintings Act, said it was about time Congress acted.

"American taxpayers shouldn't be called to sacrifice to pay for vanity paintings which are often hidden from the public," he said. "This is a waste of money that is rightly being eliminated."

Among the other riders attached to the spending bill are:

Another one-year delay in energy efficiency rules that effectively would ban incandescent light bulbs.

Requirements that the National Security Agency report on its snooping activities, including divulging to Congress the number of phone records it has scooped up, the number it has analyzed, and whether the phone metadata collection program has halted any terrorist plots.

A continued ban on federal funding for abortions and a provision prohibiting the District of Columbia from spending its own taxpayer money on abortions.

Limits on federal agencies' spending on travel and conferences.

A delay of rules policies that would limit coal-fired power-plant construction.

Language preventing the Postal Service from ending Saturday delivery or closing many rural post offices. The Postal Service argues that it needs to take such action to become financially solvent, but many lawmakers say it would hurt small communities.

Riders always have been part of massive bills. Past riders have included policies on federal offshore drilling and the slaughter of horses for human consumption.

Indeed, much of the fight in 2011 when Republicans took control of the House was over riders designed to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood and to halt some of the Environmental Protection Agency rules issued during Mr. Obama's tenure.

This year's riders haven't completely replaced the push for old-fashioned financial assistance for voters back home.

In one key provision, the spending bill includes language blocking federal flood insurance premium increases for homeowners who, under new maps, find their homes are deemed to be in flood plains.

The riders weren't enough to earn the support of many conservative activist groups, which said the process gave House members less than 48 hours to read the 1,582-page bill.

"Taxpayers are left with one massive bill that funds Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and many other liberal priorities without any ability to scrutinize each department separately," said Daniel Horowitz of the Madison Project, which is aiding conservative challengers to Republican incumbents in a number of congressional races this year.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said he wished he could give lawmakers more time but noted the deadline.

"We want to get this government funding in place as soon as possible. And I think, under the circumstances, what we're doing is appropriate," he said.

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