The latest omnibus spending legislation is full of bad policy and wasteful spending. So was the omnibus that was enacted in May 2017. So was the omnibus enacted in December 2015. Same for December 2014, January 2014, May 2013 and December 2011.
The most disappointing part of this year’s version of the utterly broken congressional appropriations process is that it was no different than years past. Omnibus spending loaded down with sweeteners demanded in back-door negotiations are the essence of the swamp.
Every year, the process plays out the same way. The regular order appropriations bills pass in the House, then die in the Senate. As the various deadlines come and go, Congress passes numerous continuing resolutions to buy more time (though the extra time never yields a productive regular order proceeding).
Finally, when months of a given fiscal year have already passes, Republican and Democratic leaders retreat to some back room in the Capitol to do the real negotiating. The negotiations lead to countless concessions the duly elected majority party must make to the Democrats that break every campaign promise on the books.
The result is a thousand-page bill that increases spending, exacerbates the debt crisis, and enacts misguided policy riders. Worse, the vote on these bills is often rushed, passing only 24 or 36 hours after the text is released, and inevitably, Members are faced with a government shutdown if the omnibus doesn’t pass.
This is a terrible way to govern. After all is said and done, congressional leaders pledge that next year will be different. They promise regular order, and vow they’ll get the spending under control next year.
But this year was the no different than the last year, or the one before that. In fact, in terms of dollars, this year was the worst yet.
Here are some steps Congress must take, starting now, to avoid this in the future:
- Pass a budget. The budget sets overall spending limits and dictates amounts to be spent on each department. Without a proper budget, there will be no successful appropriations process.
- Act early, before the deadline. The president’s budget is released in February. Congress has between February and Sept. 30 of each fiscal year to act on appropriations on time. There are 12 appropriations bills. Those bills take time be drafted, marked up in subcommittee and the full committee, and then debated on the floor of each chamber. This process must start early, and Congress must pass and close bills as they go along.
- Break up the omnibuses. An omnibus is a massive piece of legislation, often more than 1,000 pages, with lots of extraneous policy material attached to it. No single member has read the whole bill before voting on it. To give important federal issues the attention they deserve, Congress must act on one appropriation bill at a time. The House has tried this practice for many years, but the Senate almost never passes these bills. That makes no sense, as these mage-bills disenfranchise their vote on individual issues and forces them to cast one single vote, up or down, on thousands of questions all rolled into one.
- Force action in the Senate. Bring the appropriations bills to the floor of the Senate, let individual senators offer amendments, then seek a vote on final passage. If the minority party blocks a bill, make them justify it by forcing the debate and shining attention on their tactics. Have an open and honest debate. If the Majority party is committed to regular order, it can make it happen.
- Stick to their commitments. For years, Republicans have promised to cut spending, or at least slow the rate of growth. Yet they’ve just presided over a massive increase in spending. In the future, they should keep their word and force spending reductions through the Senate. Otherwise, they should stop promising to do so.
Each year, numerous opinion columns such as this one mark an anniversary of the sadly broken Washington spending machine. Each year, leaders promise that the next year will be different. The only way we can expect a different outcome, is if we observe different behavior. To get there, Congress must follow these simple steps.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 03/23/18