Riding the Legislative Omnibus

Piecemeal.

That’s what the Democrats are calling the House Republicans’ steps to address the current funding gap and partial government shutdown. They are complaining that the House wants to break up the budgetary issues currently at odds in the continuing resolution. What the House is doing is a response to the utter gridlock on the huge omnibus appropriations bill currently at a standstill due to the Obama Administration’s intransigence. The House figured, OK, they don’t want to pass the CR we’ve given them, let’s take a step back, break it down, and fund things that need immediate attention.  This is seen as a “piecemeal” or “cherry-picking” approach by the Democrats. But is this attitude just another example of Democrat grandstanding?

I believe it is. Harry Reid said in an interview:

“Now they are focusing on trying to cherry-pick some of the few parts of government that they like,” Reid said. “Just another wacky idea by the tea party-driven Republicans. … We support veterans, and parks, we support the FBI, we support the federal government, that’s our job that’s what we do. We can’t and we won’t be forced to choose between parks and cancer research or disease control or highway safety or the FBI, or national security agencies.” — Salt Lake Tribune, Oct. 9, 2013

On the surface, it sounds like Ol’ Harry “Cowboy Poet” Reid has a point, but that point is fragile, like that of a mechanical pencil. Subject it to too much pressure, and it snaps off.

Congressional appropriations, according to Jessica Tollestrup, Analyst on Congress and the Legislative Process for the Congressional Research Service, come in three major types: regular appropriations bills, continuing resolutions, and supplemental appropriations measures. The type that, under normal circumstances, provides most of our government’s funding is the regular appropriations bill.

The normal process during the Congressional year is for the budget (supposed to be offered by the President) to be broken down into around 12 or so separate chunks, each of which is considered by a separate appropriations subcommittee. Spending bills are originated in the House, by Constitutional requirement, and the Senate wrangles over possible changes to what the House committees propose. Each chunk addresses a different area of government spending. When things are going as laid out in the Constitution, the process goes back and forth until a budget is acceptable to both the House and the Senate, then each chunk, each a separate appropriations bill, is given to the President to sign or veto.  (This is highly simplified, for the full process refer to the CRS document at http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/97-684.pdf)

But things are not normal right now. Congress has not been able to agree on a budget for around 5 years. The President passed down a couple, but they didn’t work for Congress. The House has passed a number of budgetary measures, but the Senate didn’t accept them, such as the Ryan plan. Yes, it has been that long since we had an actual budget.  In order to keep functioning in absence of a budget, Congress has resorted to the second type of appropriations bill, the Continuing Resolution. But just because it’s a CR doesn’t mean it’s not supposed to be broken out into its usual chunks and put in a bunch of smaller bills. What we’ve got, though is one huge bill with everything in it, an omnibus bill.

Omnibus bills are typically an attempt to save time by putting everything in the same package deal. While they can, under some circumstances, help with getting things done before deadlines, it’s easy to hide jokers like earmarks, special interest favors, and other kinds of “pork” because they are usually huge. Such large documents are rarely completely understood because there’s never enough time to read them. They are a strategy to slam-dunk a whole lot of extra stuff into the “law of the land” along with the main body of the budget.  They’ve been getting more and more popular since the 70’s, containing more and more and more of the budget in a single, unwieldy bill.

The Omnibus Bill
“Read The Bill!”

Remember Nancy Pelosi’s famous “we need to pass it so we can find out what’s in it” line about the Obamacare bill? That’s what happens when you have omnibus bills — they’re so big that you have legislators like John Conyers saying “I love these members, they get up and say, ‘Read the bill.’ What good is reading the bill if it’s a thousand pages and you don’t have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you read the bill?”  It’s quite simple — bills in general in Congress were supposed to be smaller, easier to read and understand, making it actually possible to do the work of Congress properly in the time allotted them. Such omnibus bills are too big to fully grasp.

Congressmen have complained about omnibus bills vociferously in the past, including prominent Democrats, and at least one President has made his displeasure known. President Ronald Reagan, in his 1988 State of the Union address, thunked down three huge stacks of budget bills weighing in at 42 pounds.  He was quite clear when he said:

“Congress shouldn’t send another one,” said President Reagan, forcefully. “No, and if you do, I will not sign it.”

He received a standing ovation. A bipartisan standing ovation. It was justified — this was the second time in two years, the third time ever, that all 13 regular appropriations bills were presented as an omnibus.  Ten years later, then House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO) had this to say about another 40-pound appropriations conference report:

“Ronald Reagan was right. It was a bad way to do business in 1988, and it’s a bad way to do business in 1998.”

This wasn’t even as large a bill as the one Reagan was angry over — it only contained 8 regular appropriations bills, but it was accompanied by numerous other authorization measures and a generous helping of “pork”.

In 2004, HR 2673, yet another Consolidated Omnibus Appropriations Bill, clocked in at 455 pages. Many Democrat Congressmen stood to complain about this bill’s size, and the inability to comprehend it completely.  Representative Brian Baird (D-WA) said, in reference to the bill’s size:

“Mr. Speaker, here is the bill. I hesitate to lift it. I think it is an OSHA violation. This is it.  It became available to us at 12:15 last night. It is less than 12 hours later, and we are going to be voting on this in a very short time. Something is wrong with our democracy.” (Emphasis mine)

Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) stood to issue the following complaint:

“Mr. Speaker, this bill comes before us is an omnibus bill because we did not take all the bills, vote on them on the floor, and the Senate did not do it either.”

Mr. Nadler’s comment implies that if an omnibus bill is presented, Congress didn’t do its job properly.  The proper, normal, and reasonable procedure should be to present individual subcommittee bills, each short enough to be comprehensible in the time allowed. Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO) expresses her agreement with this concept:

“A lot of mischief can come from a bill that is a $388.4 billion bill, 14.75 inches thick. I measured it, which was filed sometime after midnight. I will guarantee my colleagues not one Member, including the gentleman from Florida, read this bill, even on the Internet…This is wrong. It is the wrong way to do it. It is the wrong way to debate it; and as far as I know, given this massive spending bill that no one has read, as far as I am concerned, it is just the tip of the iceberg. Vote ‘no’ on the rule, vote ‘no’ on the bill.”

But now, when the Democrats are under the gun and a beloved step towards their shining goal of single-payer healthcare is threatened with defunding, suddenly the proper method of multiple smaller bills is a “wacky idea”. It is derided in the media as “piecemeal” and “cherry-picking”, even though it used to be the way it was always done.

Don’t be fooled by the Democrats’ whining. It is normal to break up appropriations bills into smaller, easier-to-handle pieces, it is normal to try to defund things that your party believes are wrong, or may harm the country, and it is normal for both houses of Congress and the President to negotiate over contentious issues. All of this moaning and groaning and petulant refusals to do their jobs are nothing but theatrics, and hypocritical theatrics to boot.

And lastly, I refer back to an earlier post of mine — all of these complaints about the ACA being “the law of the land”, how it got passed (along party lines), and how SCOTUS found favorably for it are nothing but intimidation, intended to keep people from challenging it. NO law is immutable. NO law, even one that SCOTUS has decided upon, is untouchable.

Why is there such worry about who the President appoints to the Supreme Court, whether they’ll be left-wing or right-wing?  Because SCOTUS can revisit decisions and overturn them. The Democrats are always concerned that SCOTUS might swing to the right, and revisit something like Roe v. Wade, just as the Republicans are concerned that SCOTUS might swing to the left and revisit DC v. Heller. When someone says “it’s the law of the land”, you should mentally append “for the time being”, since any law is subject to repeal, modification, regulation, a new SCOTUS case, or having a decision overturned completely.  The court might revisit the ACA…and next time, John Roberts might change his mind, who knows?

Respectfully Submitted.