Program

Omnibus Spending Bills Portend Ominous Consequences

It's hard to dispute the utility of omnibus appropriations bills, which combine two or more annual spending measures into one. Their wisdom and advisability are another matter. Unfortunately, Congress is headed down that omnibus road again this year.

Yes, omnibus bills permit Congress to wrap up its work expeditiously at the end of the year, clear the decks for the next session, and get out of town with some sense of finality and accomplishment. And, yes, they allow Congress to avoid messy and prolonged conferences between the two chambers. They can even short-circuit initial consideration and amendments in one or both chambers. But that's where the ugliness begins.

When Republicans were the minority party, we jokingly referred to these bloated behemoths as "ominous bills" because nobody knew what was in them or what dangers they might portend (cue the theme from "Jaws" here): They always had a way of circling back and biting you.

Days after an omnibus bill is signed into law, enterprising reporters, wading through hundreds of pages of statutory language, begin finding hidden goodies that had not been in the bills reported or passed by either chamber. And therein lie the black eyes, time bombs, backroom deals, and sundry other embarrassments that sully the reputation of Congress and infuriate unsuspecting Members and constituents alike.

Why and how does this happen? The "why" of omnibus bills is easy enough. For a variety of reasons (more often political or policy-related than over spending differences), Congress can't get all of its work done on time and needs to get out of town for election campaigning or a scheduled holiday adjournment. "How" all these extraneous matters find their way into bills is another story. These seemingly unnatural acts actually are a natural phenomenon in the political environment. Omnibus bills are the last train to leave the station — must-pass legislation — and lots of folks, both inside and outside Congress, want to hitch a ride and stow their baggage aboard.

Pressures are brought on party leaders to allow "just one more item" to be included in the omnibus bill. Sometimes these pressures involve pleas that a Member's re-election depends on it. Others cite promises made to important individuals or groups to get something done before adjournment. Sometimes leaders themselves initiate new items they deem important to the party and its allies. Whatever the reason, the final catch-all bill begins to attract all sorts of things — like lint on a cheap suit.

It's an old story that keeps repeating itself. While it's true that the process advantages leaders and gives them, rather than committee chairmen or conference committees, the final say on what goes into the final mix, leaders often are as disgusted at the spectacle as their followers. There seems to be a love-hate relationship with the omnibus vehicle. After an omnibus law inevitably is exposed by the press as containing a panoply of tawdry tuck-ins, the leadership will just as inevitably vow, "Never again!" — at least not until the next time, when memories have faded. And then the games begin anew.

Probably the most dramatic embarrassment to Congress over omnibus legislation occurred when, in his 1988 State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan slammed down on the rostrum three giant stacks of budget bills weighing 42 pounds. "Congress shouldn't send another one," Reagan angrily declared. "No, and if you do, I will not sign it." Both parties erupted in a standing ovation. It was the second time in two years (and third time in history) that all of the 13 regular appropriations bills were rolled into one. Reagan's show-and-tell stunt embarrassed Congress straight (at least for six of the next seven years).

Ten years later it was payback time. Then-House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) plopped a 40-pound omnibus appropriations conference report on the minority leadership table. Gephardt's drop-prop included eight of the 13 regular appropriations bills, plus numerous authorization measures and pounds of pork. "Ronald Reagan was right," Gephardt chided. "It was a bad way to do business in 1988, and it's a bad way to do business in 1998."

In the last eight years in which Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress (1987-94), there were omnibus bills in just two of those years. In the last nine years Republicans have controlled both chambers (1995-2000 and 2003-05), there have been seven.

The current Congress brought with it two new Appropriations chairmen, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) in the House and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) in the Senate. Both vowed significant changes in their committees and the process. When Cochran was asked by reporters last year whether there would be any omnibus appropriations bills on his watch, he said he opposed them. But, he added, there could be a "mini-bus" now and then. While Congress did enact all of the regular appropriations bills separately in 2005, this year the leadership plans to bundle up nine of the (now) 11 regular bills into an omnibus measure in the post-election session — clearly a maxi-bus.

Why are Republicans having the same problems getting their work done on time under unified party government as majority Democrats and Republicans did under divided party government? The answer lies mostly in the prospect that Democrats could win control of one or both chambers on Nov. 7. Senate Republicans do not want to open themselves to votes on sensitive domestic policy and spending priority issues that could affect individual races. That is why only two security-related appropriations bills, Defense and Homeland Security, are slated for final action before the election recess.

It seems an awfully poor excuse for not completing action on the people's business of funding government, on time and before the elections. You can bet that the resulting omnibus bill in November will only further illuminate a dysfunctional Congress as it is seen pushing a giant lint ball, Sisyphus-like, up the Hill.


Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.



Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.