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Water chestnuts and Smokey Bear: Surprises await under the 'Christmas tree' COVID-19 relief bill

Andy Sullivan
·3 min read

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON, Dec 21 (Reuters) - The 5,593-page bill poised to pass the U.S. Congress on Monday provides plenty of coronavirus aid. It also ensures that you will not go to prison for transporting water chestnut plants across state lines.

After months of inaction, Congress has rolled coronavirus aid, federal government funding and a grab bag of miscellaneous provisions into one massive year-end piece of legislation - called a "Christmas tree" in Washington parlance.

The bill was so unwieldy that it caused congressional computers to malfunction, delaying publication for several hours on Monday, according to Republican Senator John Thune.

Along with $900 billion in coronavirus aid - the second-largest stimulus package in U.S. history - the bill also funds the government through September 2021, at a cost of $1.4 trillion.

It also extends a hodgepodge of tax breaks for NASCAR auto-racing tracks, craft distillers and other interests that would have otherwise expired at the end of the year.

And like any Christmas tree, the bill serves as cover for any number of goodies and surprises. Among them:

TWO NEW SMITHSONIAN MUSEUMS

The bill establishes two new Smithsonian Institution museums: a Women's History Museum and a National Museum of the American Latino. They would join other Smithsonian museums that draw millions of visitors to showcase locations along Washington's National Mall.

Locations for the museums are not specified, but several parcels of land along the National Mall are mentioned.

REPEALING UNENFORCED CRIMES

The bill repeals nine criminal laws that are rarely, if ever, enforced.

People who transport water hyacinths, alligator grass or water chestnut plants across state lines also would no longer face up to six months in prison.

Motorists who put bogus theft-prevention decals on their cars would no longer face fines of up to $1,000.

Likewise, those who misused certain emblems - the U.S. Forest Service's "Smokey Bear" and "Woodsy Owl" characters, the Interior Department's Golden Eagle insignia, the 4-H Club emblem, and the Swiss Confederation's coat of arms - would no longer face jail time. People who use those symbols could still face civil lawsuits.

HORSE RACING SAFETY

The bill sets up an anti-doping program for horse racing, along with a new racetrack safety program, which would be handled by an independent body.

DAYCARE EXPENSES

The bill allows parents to carry over unused childcare and healthcare funds they had deposited in tax-advantaged Flexible Spending Accounts into next year. Many daycare facilities have shut down during the pandemic, and access to voluntary health procedures like plastic surgery has also been limited at times.

E-CIGARETTES

Requires the U.S. Postal Service to prohibit mailing e-cigarettes.

PLUM ISLAND

The bill blocks the planned sale of Plum Island, a former federal research facility off the eastern tip of New York's Long Island that had been due to be auctioned off. Environmentalists have opposed the sale of the island, which is considered a prime wildlife habitat. (Reporting by Andy Sullivan in Washington Additional reporting by David Shepardson and Richard Cowan in Washington Editing by Scott Malone and Matthew Lewis)