Budgets are choices: The $1.7 trillion omnibus and growing Beltway disconnect

The bill is an immoral document executed by leaders increasingly out of touch with reality of life

Published December 24, 2022 4:00AM (EST)

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks at a news conference following a Senate vote on government funding in the Senate Studio at the U.S. Capitol Building on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022 in Washington, DC.  (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks at a news conference following a Senate vote on government funding in the Senate Studio at the U.S. Capitol Building on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

This article was originally published by InsiderNJ. Used by permission.

It's Christmas time in America and just how merry it's going to be will depend very much on where you sit.

In Washington this week, President Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer were celebrating their pending $1.7 trillion-dollar Omnibus spending bill that spends $858 billion on the military, that includes tens of billions for a beleaguered and deserving Ukraine, because the politicians believe it restores America's place in the world.

In a Jersey Shore Dunkin Donuts Christmas songs fill the air as "Mike", a 39-year-old single father of twin 12-year-old boys, wonders aloud if he should shift from full-time to part-time in his union food service job so he can get his boys on New Jersey's FamilyCare health insurance which he believes would pay for the mental health counseling he knows they need badly.

"They have had a tough life and my union insurance with Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield won't cover the weekly therapy I know they need," he says. "They will pay for a psychiatrist, if I can find one, but they just want them on drugs and they are already on all kinds of medicines for depression, anxiety and to be able to fall asleep at night."

Up until September 2020 when they came to live with Mike, who is a 'gentle giant' type, the twin boys mostly lived with their maternal grandmother in Illinois not far from their mother.

"There mother was beaten to death out there and it's still under investigation," Mike says. "She had been previously beaten and had brain damage. This time it was a broken eye socket."


Back in 2013 he had gone to court out west to try and get custody "but the court found the mother was a better fitting parent," Mike recalled. It was only through a random Facebook posting and phone call that Mike found out his ex-wife had died. "The minute we found out my brother and two sisters hopped into the car and drove out there because the funeral service was going to be in two days," he says. "We just wanted to give the boys the comfort that we really cared about them."

The adjustment has been tough in part because of the considerable gap in academic standards where they were in Illinois and where they landed in New Jersey. "It was a real culture shock," Mike said. The single dad gets help with caring for his boys while he's working from his immediate family. "I couldn't do this without my brother, my mother and step-father," he says.

"They like to build models and I got them into playing basketball and baseball and they got on the team at school," he says. "It was really challenging at first until they started meeting friends and they were getting more comfortable with all the changes— but then it started turning bad when they had trouble with some kids making fun of them saying things like 'why don't you call your mother from the grave to tell her you need some help'—these kids are just being mean."

It's taken time for the boys to open up to their dad. One of the boys is still dealing with the fact that he missed a phone call from his mother the night she died. "He feels horrible because he was asleep and missed the call so he feels like he could have done something to help her if he had been awake to answer the call," Mike said. "They were really crime victims when you think about it, big time. One of the boys told me he had to drive the car at 2 a.m. in the morning while his mother and her boyfriend were in the back seat doing dope. She even had them in a meth house, but they weren't allowed to tell me any of this about what really happened out there."

Thanks to regular overtime, Mike makes $42,000 a year at his skilled trade retail union job. As an essential worker he briefly got hazard pay for working during COVID which took the lives of thousands and thousands of workers whose job it was to serve the nation.


Things were already tight, and business is slowing down where he works. When the boys first moved in, he found a counselor who would come to the house and talk to each boy separately and then they would all talk together and helped them to be more open with their dad. "It cost me $75 a session and the insurance wouldn't cover it, but that guy just stopped coming," said Mike. "Now, I am struggling to find somebody to replace him because even though they have a counselor at the school, they need somebody outside of school to talk about what happens in school."

"I am looking online—researching things and these places either are not taking any patients or there are months long waiting lists," Mike says. He's grateful for the fact that he pays no premium for his union provided coverage which he could retain for himself if he went part-time, taking the cut in pay to get the boys on the state insurance.

Deborah Fennelly is a Morristown based attorney with decades of experience helping people like Mike with children from challenging circumstances when she worked for Legal Services of New Jersey and the Community Health Law Project.

"This is part of a much larger problem of how with all this talk about how many of our children are suffering with mental health challenges–while we have therapists and people that are trained to handle them, you can't access it because guess what? It's not covered by insurance," Fennelly said. "Insurance companies have not followed up with meeting the needs of the public, especially after COVID."

Fennelly supports universal healthcare noting the long-term costs to individuals, their families and society, when physical and mental health issues go unaddressed because of the gatekeeping barriers to it that make healthcare so profitable.

Mike's story is one of how our existing system fails working people and offers some insights into why there is so much precarity in play to the point that 47 million Americans left their jobs last year, almost four times the size the entire rank and file of the AFL-CIO.

Consider how many previously working women, who had to stay home because of the need to be with their children because of mandatory home schooling during COVID. As a consequence, close to two million women left the workforce.  Subsequently, 16,000 child care centers closed. Currently, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calculates that childcare is no longer affordable if costs more than 7 percent of your household income. In New Jersey, the average childcare cost bite ranges from 22 percent to 35 percent depending on the county you live in.

And while some New Jersey proponents of the Affordable Health Care Act might take some pride that only 9 percent of New Jersey's adults are uninsured as compared to 11 percent nationally, when you start asking any of the 91 percent that are covered about the gaps in that coverage be ready to hear horror some stories not unlike Mike's.


According to a research survey earlier this year from the Commonwealth Fund, a non-profit committed to increasing access to affordable health care, 43 percent of working-age adults were inadequately insured this year, which meant they were either uninsured, had a gap in their coverage, or had could not afford the coverage.

When they were covered by a work-related plan, almost a third were under insured, while 44 percent of consumers who went out independently, to take their chances in the marketplace to buy coverage had similar gaps in coverage. And 46 percent of survey participants reported that, despite having health insurance, exorbitant healthcare costs prompted them to put off care.

"Having health insurance is not enough to protect millions of Americans from high medical costs that are burdening them with bills they cannot pay or debt they are working to pay off," Commonwealth Fund President David Blumenthal said during a press briefing.

"Ultimately half of those surveyed said they wouldn't be able to pay an unexpected $1,000 medical bill within 30 days, including 68 percent of low-income adults, 69 percent of Black adults and 63 percent, of Latinx/Hispanic adults," reported Hailey Mensik for the website Health Care Dive. "About a quarter of those with chronic health problems like diabetes said out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs caused them to skip doses or not fill a prescription."

There's a healthcare cost meltdown going on right now, as New Jersey's public employees saw with the 20 to 24 percent hike for their healthcare premiums.

What's being largely ignored in the reporting on the pending $1.7 trillion Omnibus bill, isn't just that it spends most of the money on an obscene appropriation for the military, like $8.5 billion for 61 F-35 fighter jets, but that it does this on the backs of America's essential workers like Mike who could benefit from the renewal of the expanded child tax credit left on the cutting room floor to help pay for the Pentagon feeding frenzy.


Incredibly, President Biden and the Democratic Congress have left intact the Trump 2017 tax cuts which were such a windfall for the nation's .01 percent high end earners and our multinationals who went on the clean up during the pandemic while essential workers soldiered through a killer pandemic that's still killing 10,000 people a month. The federal minimum wage is still stuck at $7.25 an hour as inflation gallops over the horizon and the Federal Reserve reverts to it blunt instrument of interest rate hikes to slow down wage growth and job creation.

There's a crisis in the labor market and President Biden's response to a potential rail strike is to enlist a Democratic Congress to impose a contract that most rail workers rejected because it lacks paid sick days.

Meanwhile, Congress blinked at creating a 9/11 Commission type panel to independently review how the Trump and Biden administration responded to a mass death event that killed 1.1 million Americans and sidelined millions more including many essential workers that were unprotected. They couldn't even bring themselves to provide the most of the $3.7 billion needed to keep the 9/11 World Trade Center Health Program solvent.

"The U.S. life expectancy has dropped two years in a row and is now 76.4 years as of 2021, down from a peak of 78.8 years in 2019, while Canada, just next door, has an 81.75-year-old average life expectancy. We spend $12,318 per capita a year on healthcare and Canada spends $5,511–the UK has 80.8 years average life expectancy and they spend just $5,387 —we spend much more and get much less," said James Henry, an economist, attorney, and expert on international taxation. "Our entire healthcare system is grotesque and on the climate crisis there's just a billion dollars in climate aid in the Omnibus bill and they are spending $30.1 billion on new naval ships."

The reality is that in the 21st century world we are living, the $1.7 trillion-dollar Omnibus spending bill is an immoral document executed by leadership that's increasingly out of touch with the deteriorating circumstance of the American people. They need to talk to more Mikes.

Yes, we should support the courage of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people, but it can't be solely at the expense of America's Mikes and their kids. America hasn't been working for them for a very long time.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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