That undulating wail you’ve been hearing out of the Pacific Northwest is not a tsunami siren test. It’s my uncontrollable frustration every time I see a post on social media, or receive an email from a PAC, about the Omnibus spending measure. These posts and emails come from two schools of thought that are equally obnoxious—and wrong. Authors of these screeds refer to the Omnibus as a budget which either the “President doesn’t have to follow because it’s not a law” or “a failure of the Congress to pass the President’s Budget”. Neither of those positions is correct. Presidential Budgets are not binding documents, they are suggestions. Congressional Budgets are not laws; they are intended as guidelines for the appropriations process. The Omnibus is not a budget. The Omnibus is also not the product of a properly operating Congressional appropriations process.
The Federal government’s budgetary process begins when the President (actually an entire office of Presidential advisors, as very few of our Presidents have any real understanding of economics on a national scale) writes a budget. With much fanfare, or gnashing of teeth, this request is submitted to Congress. That’s an important point: the document submitted to the Congress is a proposal, a request, a plea, even, for the Congress to set spending levels at certain marks for certain programs. It is not binding. If (more on that “if” in a moment) there is a Budget Resolution passed by Congress that year, the language and spending levels rarely match what the President requested. The allocation of Federal monies is a Constitutional duty delegated to the Congress—one of the few which they still jealously guard.
Each of the two chambers of the Congress has its own Budget Committee. They meet separately to discuss their budgetary goals and pass a budget resolution. This procedure was established by the “Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974” which laid out a framework for the Federal budget and appropriations processes. Once (if) a chamber passes its Budget Resolution, then a joint committee meets to hammer out the differences. When agreement is reached, a “Concurrent Resolution on the Budget” is passed.
That’s it. The Budget is a resolution. Like the “Pirate Code” in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, it’s “more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules”. Remember your Schoolhouse Rock “How a Bill Becomes a Law” : the President must sign (or have his veto of over-ridden) a bill in order for it to become law. The President does not sign the Budget Resolution, therefore, it is not a law.
A note on that pesky “if”: chambers of Congress do not always pass a Budget. The Senate might pass a resolution that cannot be reconciled with the House resolution. The Senate might not pass a budget resolution at all. In fact, this scenario has become so common that actual passage of a Senate Budget Resolution has become an aberration. As the Budget Resolution is just a guideline, passage is not mandatory for the appropriations process. However, try running your personal finances that way and watch what happens.
The appropriations process after passage of a Budget Resolution is equally fraught with failure. House and Senate Appropriations Committees are supposed to meet, write, and pass on to the full House or Senate, spending measures for each of twelve entities. Once those bills have passed the full House or Senate, a committee meets to reconcile the two versions and that version is approved in a separate vote before being sent to the President. Appropriations bills are sent to the President, who is required to either sign or veto them. That is how a bill becomes a law. Unfortunately, the passage of all 12 appropriations bills has only happened four times since 1976. In the majority of years, Congress must pass continuing resolutions to keep the government funded and then lump all appropriations into one massive bill called an “Omnibus”. Due to their very nature, omnibus bills are ungainly travesties of legislation. Typically numbering well over one thousand pages, filled with legal and economic language that only the wonkiest of financial aides understand, and passed in a hurry to avoid a government shut-down, an Omnibus bill combines funding for Planned Parenthood with money to buy gas for military vehicles. Legislators are presented with a nearly unintelligible Gordian Knot that morphs into the Sword of Damocles when constituents discover for what their representatives just voted.
The President is likewise constrained: he must either sign the entire bill into law or veto the entire bill. He cannot say “I am signing this law to fund everything except for Planned Parenthood”. The President does not have a line-item veto. The language within the law allocates the distribution of funds to specific agencies which must be followed. So, those who argue that the omnibus is non-binding because it’s not a law are as wrong as those who seek to indemnify the President due to Congress not passing his version of the budget.
The blame for the cycle of continuing resolutions and bloated omnibus bills lies squarely with the Congress. The Budget Act of 1974 was supposed to cure these problems. Given its decades-long failure to do so, it’s time the voters held Congress responsible.