By Jenna Lewinstein (SC ’19)
On March 23, 2018, President Trump signed a 2018 $1.3 trillion spending bill, avoiding a government shutdown. This enormous 2,232-page bill covers the budgets for a vast amount of policy issues, ranging from defense to border security to opioids. Though President Trump threatened to use his veto power, he ended up signing the bill into law. It turns out, Trump did not know exactly what he was signing, and now has a push to rollback the omnibus bill in the form of a recission because it does not include provisions for a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) fix or border wall.
Though a president should understand the legislation he signs into law, President Trump is hardly alone in not knowing what is included in legislative packages of this size. In Congress, spending bills like this that span across multiple budget areas are known as an “omnibus.” Omnibus bills are becoming increasingly popular as a last-ditch effort during the end of a legislative session or before a deadline to create a budget. In an era of heightened party polarization and partisanship, omnibus bills are passed as packages with minimal debate to save the government from the embarrassment of a shutdown. Before the omnibus, “regular order” reigned supreme. This system employs a dozen separate appropriations bills that are passed individually by the House and the Senate. This system breaks the federal budget into more digestible pieces with clear goals and oversight. Omnibus bills are a symptom of a dysfunctional Congress and should be curtailed in order to foster transparency in the federal budget and the legislative process in general.
Appropriations bills fund about a third of the budget, and include all discretionary spending that is authorized by Congress on an annual basis. When Congress does not provide discretionary funds, federal employees will not be paid, health research will not be funded, and passports cannott be processed. Between 1975 and 2012, over half of spending bills were enacted through regular order on an individual basis. Now, nearly all of appropriations bills are passed in an omnibus package. This is due to a culture of individual activism that began in the mid twentieth century with the establishment of sunshine laws. Though sunshine laws attempt to increase transparency by opening Senators up to public scrutiny, they encouraged lawmakers to dig their heels in to show their constituents they would not compromise. As a result, compromise became more difficult, and other rules make accomodation impossible. Senate rules allow virtually unlimited debate unless sixty Senators vote to end it, invoking cloture. This supermajority is nearly impossible given the ideological divide between parties and the typical makeup of the 100 Senators. By allowing for endless debate, Senate rules act in a way that structurally prevents the Majority party in Congress from passing legislation on their agenda. While the filibuster and cloture are set up as checks to prevent tyranny of the majority, they contribute to gridlock in Congress and force lawmakers to pass hasty, “cobbled together mishmash of provisions and priorities” at the end of sessions.
In order to avoid these massive budget bills that leave spending uncontested, certain reforms are possible. At the 2015 National Budgeting Roundtable, political scientist and professor Peter C. Hanson recommended numerous reforms that may assuage the budgetary process and restore a system of regular order that can overcome the problems of omnibus legislation. First, allowing a simple majority of Senators to end debate on appropriations matters would eliminate the threat of filibuster and need for cloture. Precedent for switching to a simple majority exists. In November 2013, Democrats exercised a “nuclear option,” allowing the Senate a simple majority to approve presidential nominations of federal judges. Managed debate could be arranged and would give members the opportunity to speak on issues and claim credit for accomplishments and positions that are important to their constituents. It is a common misconception that the Constitution requires appropriations bills to start in the House, like tax legislation. The Senate should be able to debate concurrently with the house, and the two chambers can mitigate differences using a conference committee or ping-ponging. Hanson’s final recommendation would be to allow total vote tallies instead and anonymous voting on appropriations bills, increasing the likelihood of compromising and bipartisan support.
Overall, omnibus spending bills are a dangerous legislative mechanism that represent procrastination in Congress and capitalize on the lack of page restrictions for bills to allow for confusion and prevent transparency. Congress now has until September 2018 to pass spending for the fiscal year of 2019, and in March 2019 the debt limit will become unsuspended, calling for another budget catastrophe. Within the next year, these two instances will arise that yield similar conversations and arguments about the omnibus, and likely, two more omnibus bills will result.