Perspectives

Trying to Clarify a Confusing Omnibus Spending Bill

By Dennis Grimski

I love political science and studying the laws and political processes of the US.  In looking at the news and social media over the past few days, there seems to be a lot of concern and confusion about the $1.3 trillion-dollar Omnibus Spending Bill that was signed into law this past week.

This post is an attempt to clarify some of the concerns being voiced by many who are worried about the size of the overall budget increase; and for many conservatives, about dollars being allocated to Planned Parenthood, Sanctuary Cities, or limited dollars for building of the southern border WALL.  The omnibus, which provides money for everything from border security to funding the census, is huge. To put the numbers into context, it’s roughly equivalent to the gross domestic product (GDP) of Russia.

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Before I address concerns about the omnibus bill, let me lay out some facts about the omnibus itself.

What is an Omnibus Bill?

An omnibus bill is a proposed law that covers a number of diverse or unrelated topics. Omnibus is derived from Latin and means “for everything.”   Omnibus legislation is routinely used by the United States Congress to group together the budgets of all departments in one year in an Omnibus spending bill.

The Omnibus Spending Bill that was passed this past week, is formally known as H.R. 1625, or ‘‘The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018”.   The House passed the legislation on Thursday, March 22, voting 256-167 with Democrats and Republicans coming together to pass it less than 24 hours after the 2,300-page bill was made public. The Senate passed the bill Friday, March 23, voting 65-32.  Subsequently, President Donald Trump signed the bill later Friday after he threatened to veto it earlier over a lack of an immigration solution.   The President criticized the bill and warned Congress: “I will never sign another bill like this again.”

By promulgating the omnibus Congress averted a potential government shutdown.  This omnibus funds the government for the remainder of this fiscal year, or through September 30, 2018.  Not surprising, most representatives stated they had not read the entire bill and cannot vouch for the specifics it contains.  This fact alone should alarm most taxpayers on why we elected these officials?

It must be noted that an Omnibus Spending Bill is substantially different than a Budget Spending Bill.  Typically, a Budget Bill is passed by Congress for each US Department after Committee debate and provides a funding allocation for the particular department.  The US federal department then has a line item budget that specifies what the funds may be used for, and any particular instructions (parameters) Congress may put around the appropriated dollars.

Because of the size of an Omnibus Bill, it does not contain the specific line items and particulars of a budget bill.  Instead it provides a global budget via legislative intent on the funds allocation to each Department.  Obviously, under an Omnibus Bill, both the President and the federal Departments have greater latitude on fiscal expenditures than under a Budget Bill.  We will explore some of these nuances in greater depth later.

What’s Wrong with the Omnibus Process?

Many believe the omnibus process represents everything that is wrong with Washington.  Any semblance of the regular order budget process gets ignored in favor of funding by crisis.  The crisis was Congress’ own creation where they passed temporary funding bills (CRs) with specified end dates.  Another end date was looming this past Friday, March 23, at 12:00 midnight.

Below are some concerns with the omnibus process:

  1. One of the primary functions of Congress is “oversight.”  Yet by choosing the omnibus allocation process, Congress ignores this function in its entirety.  Rather than reviewing each Department for functionality and determining if a department and its programs are achieving their designed purposes, Congress ignores this critical step altogether.  As such, rather than departments being cut, reformed or eliminated, it is highly probable that programs that are wasteful, inefficient, or inappropriate will receive tens of billions in additional funding.  Many believe the American taxpayer deserves better from our elected officials.
  1. By leadership design (McConnell, Shummer, Ryan, and Pelosi), Congress did not receive these 2,232 bills until 24 hours before it was being asked to vote on it.  Such a tight timeline provides an insufficient amount of time for thorough debate and constructive amendment. This is not the way that the budget process is designed to work and, again, the omnibus process fails the taxpayers.
  1. It represents yet another missed opportunity by Congress to take the national debt seriously and make meaningful spending reforms.  In fact, this bill substantially increases the overall federal budget, instead of dealing with a very real $20 trillion-dollar federal deficit. With this omnibus, Congress had decided to kick the proverbial “can” down the field one more time.
  1. The omnibus touches on a wide variety of issues, including higher spending levels, national defense, Obamacare subsidies, border security, additional funding for the Department of Education, and infrastructure, among others.  All of these issues should be addressed on their own merits rather than being jammed into a “must-pass” bill to keep the government open.

What’s in the Omnibus Spending Bill?

Obviously, like our Congressmen, I have not had sufficient time to study the bill.  However, below is a high-level summarization.  Here are some of the highlights:

  • Military.  The Military gets about $730 billion of the overall allocation.  Many believe this is the key reason why Trump signed the bill.  Included in this funding is $80 billion dollars for the Army Corp of Engineers; Medical care for veterans, including Medical and Prosthetic Research; and more money for troops (including a 2.4% pay raise, the largest since 2010).  Of concern is that Congress has once again limited care to only the VA, and not providing our veterans with medical provider choice like most citizens.
  • Border Security. The bill provides $1.6 billion in funding for border security. However, don’t start mixing up the plaster just yet: The funding can’t be used for “the wall.” Language in the bill only allows fencing similar to what’s already in place.
  • Opioid Crisis. The bill includes $500 million to fund research on opioid addiction and billions more in other programming and studies (including those related to opioid alternatives). Lest you doubt the impact of the crisis on the economy, the word “opioid” appears 24 times in the bill. Yes, a federal government spending bill.
  • Elections. The bill includes $380 million for states to shore up voting systems, including electronic enhancements.
  • Tax Administration. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) finally gets funding. After years of cuts, the bill allocates $11.4 billion to IRS, $196 million more than last year. The money is to be used to improve customer service and fund a “business systems modernization program” meant to bring IRS systems into the 21st century. Also included in that number is an extra $320 million “to be used solely for carrying out” the new tax law passed in December
  • Space. The National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) was a big winner, getting far more than the agency requested, including for space technology and exploration.
  • Science. Many federal science and technology programs received funding raises, including the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.
  • Education:  The Department of Education was another big winner, getting far more than the department had requested, including numerous block grants.
  • Arts. While the White House proposed eliminating funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Congress instead boosted funding by $3 million (ditto for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)). Spending for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is retained.
  • Interior. Funding stays about the same from 2017, though notably, the National Park Service (NPS) gets a boost, including $138 million to address the maintenance backlog.

Here’s a look at what didn’t make it into the bill:

  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). As widely reported (and tweeted by President Trump), there was no movement on DACA in the omnibus.
  • The infamous Gateway Project. The infrastructure project, a tunnel between New Jersey and New York City, was likely thrown under the bus as part of an ongoing feud between Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and President Trump since it didn’t appear in the bill. However, the infrastructure provisions in the bill do not prevent federal funds from being used for the Gateway project. So, silent win-silent win?
  • Planned Parenthood. As predicted, riders to block funding for Planned Parenthood did not make it into the final bill.
  • Sanctuary Cities.  As predicted, riders to block federal dollars going to Sanctuary Cities did not make it into the final bill.
  • Obamacare. Provisions to deregulate the insurance market to stem rising premiums were chatted up, but none were included.
  • Portraits. And just in case you were worried, none of the funds in the bill can be used to pay for the painting of “a portrait of an officer or employee of the Federal government, including the President, the Vice President, a member of Congress…, the head of an executive branch agency… or the head of an office of the legislative branch.” (Ha, who thinks of these things?)

Altogether, there’s a lot to take in.  The final bill downloads at 2,232 “budget-busting” pages.  That works out to $582 million per page. Some way we need to convey to our federal representatives that we need a better and more effective process to allocate trillions of dollars in taxpayer funds.

What Does This All Mean?

As stated earlier, you must understand that the spending bill approved this week is an Omnibus Bill, and not a Budget Bill.  As such, let’s fully understand what the President can and can’t do under this Omnibus Bill. There’s a lot of discussion both ways so let’s examine how money gets allocated & spent in the US Government:

  1. Congress allocates money to be spent. The President spends the allocated money.
  1. Once Congress allocates money, their job is oversight of the money being spent. They don’t spend the money and have no say HOW it gets spent as long as it’s spent legally. That’s their job to monitor with oversight (covered earlier).
  1. However, there are some other factors that are in play here. One of them is that the President has some political options available to him under an Omnibus Bill that doesn’t exist under a Budget Bill.
  1. For example, due to the influx of illegal aliens crossing the southern border, and the number of illegal aliens being hosted in Sanctuary Cities, the President “could” (1) declare a Human Rights Emergency regarding the southern border; and (2) simply notify Congress that he’s invoking the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.
  1. These 2 actions/declarations open up new options.  By making these two declarations President Trump has just communicated that he has the authority to NOT spend any funds he doesn’t deem necessary and will return them to the US Treasury. So, funds for Planned Parenthood or Sanctuary Cities … He can simply not allocate the funds.
  1. Under the Omnibus Bill the President may also place administrative contingencies on the dollars.  For example, he could tell the Treasury to slow walk the fund allocation and/or he could say these cities will not get the funds unless they cooperate with ICE and identify the known illegal aliens in their community.   These are all his rights in “spending” dollars under omnibus.
  1. Also, the above 2 declarations make some funds fungible. For instance, if the President determines that building a Wall on the Southern Border is a defense against Human Trafficking …. He can move funds from anywhere else in the Defense Department allocation and simply build the Wall.
  1. Even without a declared emergency, under an omnibus, the President could simply take some (or all) of the $80b dollars allocated to the Army Corp of Engineers and direct them to build the entire wall.  After all, building walls is what the Army Corp of Engineer does!
  1. In short, Congress is powerless to stop cash reallocations within a Department by the President under an omnibus bill; AND, Congress cannot stop the President from taking measures under a declared Emergency. Despite their language in the Omnibus Bill about the Border Wall, it is trumped by the State of Emergency that Trump declared.

In summary – If Trump takes this hypothetical, but permissible action, I guarantee such action will go to the Courts. The Dems in Congress will sue the President over the Border Wall alone.  But here’s how it will play out – Congress and the President are co-equal branches with different functions.   Congress allocates. The President spends.  In the end the Supreme Court (yes, that’s where it will end) should fully VALIDATE the President’s Constitutional Authority under the current laws of the land.  Under this scenario Trump can legally build the WALL.

I am not saying things “will” play out this way.  But I am pointing out that by passing an Omnibus Bill and not a Budget Spending Bill that was based off the President’s budget proposal, Congress has opened up many more options to the President on how he “spends” (or not) these allocated funds.  Indirectly, Congress may have unwittingly funded the building of the Wall.  I guess the next few months will tell us how this it all plays out.

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Dennis is a 40+ year resident of the Blue Water area. He is a retired Executive Officer for two regional healthcare organizations; and was the CEO for his own successful Management Consulting firm. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and History from Western Michigan University; a Masters Degree in Professional Counseling from WMU; and a Specialist Degree in Psychology/Behavior Modification from the UM. Dennis is a Christ-follower, husband, father, grandfather, and loves golf, board games, and discussing politics and religion. He is a leader in Bible Study Fellowship (BSF); disciples several men; and has been an Elder, children’s bible teacher, Sunday school teacher, Life Group leader, and Men’s ministry leader in his church.

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