Congress struggles to escape omnibus

For Congress, a year-end, catch-all spending bill is like a black hole.

Massive and opaque, an omnibus like the 1,200-page, $1 trillion monster President Obama signed into law on Dec. 23 appears almost impossible to escape.

But getting out of the orbit of this black hole is a top goal for appropriators next year.

ADVERTISEMENT
House GOP leaders are dealing with a freshman class disgusted by business as usual. Eighty-six Republicans voted against this year’s omnibus and many did so in part because of the opaque process in which it was assembled and rushed to the floor less than two full days after being unveiled.

In the Senate, conservative Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) railed against the omnibus on Dec. 16 and vowed to fight once again to avoid it next year. Budget conscious Democrats from Sens. Mark Udall (Colo.) to Chris Coons (Del.) will be pushing their leaders for more fiscal discipline as well.

“Here we are again, the same thing as last year, the same thing for years,” McCain said on the floor, adding that the omnibus was “hernia-inducing.”

Good-government groups are also outraged by the lack of transparency. Several are spending the coming weeks tearing into the massive bill to find out what hidden provisions it might contain.

The cure is “returning to regular order,” and debating each of the 12 appropriations bills individually. In 2012 this will be especially difficult because of the election, members of Congress, aides and experts said.

The election shortens the calendar, virtually wiping out the fall as all of the House and a third of the Senate takes off to campaign. The election makes scoring ideological points much more important.

Finally, party leaders could want to wait to complete bills until a new Congress — or new president — is sworn in to gain leverage in a final all-in-one negotiation.

“As much as I would like them to avoid an omnibus, because of the election everything will be politicized,” Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense said.

He said that an omnibus in the lame-duck session is the most likely scenario.

But this could cause trouble for House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) embattled leadership.

“At this point everything is trouble for Boehner right now,” Ellis said, predicting restlessness by the freshman class over another omnibus.

A former GOP appropriations aide said an even more tortured spending bill scenario could erupt next year if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) believes he will capture the Senate or if Obama loses the White House.

In that case, Republicans could want to delay spending bills well into calendar year 2013 in order to cut spending deeper and score more victories on policy riders.

A delay into late spring, such as in 2011, would then make 2013 and 2014 catch-all spending bill years once again. 

Appropriators think they have a shot at beating these odds.

“Election years always complicate things to some degree but I don’t think it will prevent this,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) told The Hill. “The year is shorter and people are campaigning. And they are more sensitive to certain issues. But we’ll be OK.”

He said fiscal year 2012 was difficult because the last Congress had passed no appropriations bills and 2011 spending was not determined until April, nearly 7 months after fiscal 2011 began on Oct. 1, 2010.

“We were trying to play catch-up all year long,” he said. “Next year we will start out with a clean slate. I want to bring each bill individually to the floor.”

Despite the delay, Rogers was able to get six of the 12 bills passed in the House, an improvement over recent years.

Rogers said that the work of appropriators would be greatly eased if the other authorizing committees actually passed authorizing legislation for the executive departments. Congress regularly passes a Pentagon authorizing bill but authorizations for other agencies lapsed long ago.

“We are supposed to be appropriators, not authorizers,” Rogers said. “Until recently, I don’t think we have passed a State Department authorization bill since I’ve been here. We had to always do what authorizing was required in the appropriations process.”

He said the lack of authorization bogs the process down in fights over policy riders.

The Rogers plan is both helped and hurt by the August debt-ceiling deal.

The good news is that the deal set out a top-line number for 2013 of $1.050 trillion for discretionary spending. Even if House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) tries to cut more in his next budget resolution, that document is not likely to pass the Senate, leaving the debt-ceiling level in place.

The bad news is that the failure of the deficit supercommittee in November leaves a defense and non-defense sequester of $1.2 trillion over 10 years in place starting in 2013. Efforts to change these across-the-board cuts next year could delay the appropriations process and influence the debate over the appropriations bills. 

Conservative Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said his Appropriations Committee colleagues will not be able to overcome such problems, nor will they be able to speed up the glacial pace in which the Senate works.

He also said that while Rogers is well-meaning, the committee won’t be helped much by getting a head start early in 2012.

“Any benefit that gives us will be eclipsed by election-year politics,” he said.

In the Senate, Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) took pride this year that his committee reported out 11 of the 12 annual bills, all except the contentious environment bill.

“While it is true that we again fall short of regular order, it is also true that if the Senate passes this measure and the President signs it into law, we will have succeeded in enacting each of our bills prior to end of the calendar year for the first time since 2009,” he said as the omnibus was debated.

A Senate Democratic Appropriations aide said that the key bottleneck in the process is the Senate floor.

If agreements limiting amendments can be found, then all 12 bills could come to the floor, but allowing each of the 12 bills to dominate the calendar for two weeks or more of debate means nothing else can get done in the Senate.

The aide suggested that McCain and others, if they wish to avoid hernias, should work to find a mechanism to allow floor consideration within limits.