Feeling pressure to wrap up work on 11 of the 12 unfinished appropriations bills that fund the federal government, congressional Democrats will push this week to pass a mammoth omnibus spending package just in time for Christmas.
Omnibus bills traditionally are called "Christmas trees," because lawmakers decorate them with all kinds of expensive "presents" for the folks back home. This year's omnibus is shaping up the same way, with many lawmakers hoping it will let them bring home a sleigh full of pork with an offering of budget gimmicks and plenty of policy changes to boot. American taxpayers would be wise to tell this Santa to stay away.
But those who prefer fiscal restraint to pork might not even know the omnibus is a raw deal from the way the press is spinning the story. Headlines such as "Dems Cave on Spending" and "Democrats Yield on Spending Impasse" gave the impression last week that President Bush scored a significant victory because Democrats would exceed his total by only $3.7 billion.
Bear in mind that the devil is always in the details. With Democrats planning to release the mammoth bill later today, no one has even seen how they arrived at their total or what policy "riders" -- such as expanding the controversial Davis-Bacon wage mandate -- they have packed into the bill. One thing is for certain: the omnibus will be chock full of tricks, gimmicks and earmarks.
An analysis by the Republican Study Committee revealed that the entire package, combined with other domestic spending enacted earlier this year, adds up to $956 billion -- $23 billion more than Bush requested for all of 2008.
Even without the nitty-gritty details of the omnibus, the Republican Study Committee outlined some basic facts about next year's spending:
- The $3.7 billion that will be tacked onto the omnibus will be designated for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
- The omnibus will include up to $7.4 billion designated as "emergency spending" so it won't be counted as real spending. It includes quite a few non-emergency items, such as $100 million for security at political conventions. These confabs take place every four years, but apparently this is a surprise to appropriators.
- Democrats already won approval for $6.4 billion in other questionable "emergencies" by attaching them to the "must-pass" Defense spending bill signed by Bush last month. Meanwhile, lawmakers also shifted $3.5 billion away from underfunded Defense priorities to spend on domestic items.
- Using another gimmick, Democrats included a $2 billion increase in "advance appropriations." This is money that will be spent this fiscal year, but not written on the books until the following year -- at which time it's not counted as spending either.
These actions alone bring the total to $23 billion more than Bush requested -- and that's before anyone has even seen the actual omnibus itself. How did the extra money get through without the Capitol Hill press corps even noticing?
It's partly the fault of partisan Republicans, who relish the opportunity to kick Democrats while they're down. It doesn't help that several of the GOP's Senate leaders, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are veteran appropriators who might swallow more spending if it means another week's worth of bad headlines for Democrats. House Republicans appear more likely to hold firm, launching a "Butcher Shop" to expose the pork projects in the spending bill.
The bigger and more important question is where Bush will come down in the spending fight. The White House has played coy so far, expressing optimism that a budget breakthrough is near but also warning Democrats not to attach gimmicks and sweeping policy changes to the omnibus. If they do -- and it's not unlikely -- Bush said he'd rather have another continuing resolution that keeps spending levels the same as this year.
After years of disappointing conservatives by agreeing to huge increases in government spending, Bush has taken a new tack this year by vetoing legislation and playing hardball with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. His tough talk is beginning to pay off -- for Bush's personal approval rating and for American taxpayers fed up with Washington's big spenders. Now would not be the time to go soft on spending.
Robert B. Bluey is director of the Center for Media and Public Policy
First appeared in Townhall.com