Omnibus: Not a budget, still a hot mess.

The Omnibus is not a budget. It also is not the proper way to allocate Federal funds.

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.

Comments
No. 1-6
NWRED
NWRED

Trump had choice of endless vetoes or sign. Much of the problem is the hands of Mitch McConnell for not killing the sixty vote rule. He had too short a week for work to be done. Seven month should be long enough to pass a true budget. It should come as no surprise if Trump uses the Army Corpse of Engineers, to build the wall. The corpse has built many dams and levees. The first budget for those elected this year will be the 2019-20 budget. We still have the clowns for one more budget. A shutdown just before this years election?

ekay
ekay

I was at a Town Hall meeting being held by a senator. I was able to ask this question of the Senator "wouldn/t it be better that all bills are one issue and one issue only?" The very cut reply I got was "never going to happen". The only interpretation I can come up with regarding this issue is that congress does not WANT us to know what is in the bills they pass. If we could see what those we have elected to take care of our best interests are voting for or against it would make it easier for us to vote them in or out. As it stands they can tells us whatever they think will get them elected. They too often get voted in on the basis of what they say instead of what they actually do. If we could esily find out what is in every individual bill they vote for, or against, we could KNOW how OUR money is spent and what laws that affect our lives they pass. Maybe the best campaign We The People wage should be for single issue bills only.

JASmius
JASmius

The blame lies half with Congress for producing Trumpnibuses and half with Trump for signing the bloody thing and doing nothing to bully-pulpit it away from what it became. Despite what he claimed, he had no problems with it and was happy to smear his logo feces all over it.

NWRED
NWRED

The congress can't pass a budget in six or seven months, to meet the deadline of October 1. The House passed 12 appropriation bills. The senate did not do their work and created a mess with a 60 vote rule. There should be no CRs. Unless I missed a change, revenue and spending bills begin in the House. An omnibus is to hide detail and meet deadlines. Some money needs to be set aside for the GAO and IGs to see if the money is being spent as intended or expected. An omnibus bill might be appropriate at the end, to see if there is any overlap in spending, or the total budget was too high.

Amy Davis
Amy Davis

Editor

I agree Jake. It's very difficult to hold legislators' feet to the proverbial fire if we lump all spending into one trough.