The Omnibus Spending Bill and the Budget Process

The omnibus appropriations legislation is still pending. While most of the criticism about the bill has focused on the amount of "pork" it contains, the real problem is the seriously flawed budget process it reflects.

The Senate will not consider the omnibus appropriations legislation (HR 2673) until it returns for the new congressional session on January 20, 2004. The legislation, which was passed by the House on December 8, contains funding for Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-State, District of Columbia, Foreign Operations, Labor-HHS, Transportation-Treasury, and VA-HUD for the fiscal year that began October 1, 2003. Under a continuing resolution, all agencies and departments encompassed by the remaining seven appropriation categories will continue to be funded at 2003 levels until January 31, 2004.

Outrage over the omnibus bill has been directed at the massive amount of "pork" contained within the bill. "Pork" is defined as particular "earmarks" that benefit "special interests" in congressional districts - used by policymakers to demonstrate their ability to "bring home the bacon" for their constituents. For example, Taxpayers for Common Sense has published its
top ten list of pork. At the same time, the Heritage Foundation has complied an even longer compendium of pork projects in the omnibus bill. According to the Heritage Foundation, the 2004 appropriations contain over 10,000 earmarks. “Pork” cost range in the billions.

So, maybe a rainforest in Iowa isn’t the best use of our taxpayer dollars…but what about construction of a daycare center for kids and seniors in California, a dental clinic in Mississippi, or bike trails in Arkansas and Florida? What about renovating a bridge in Pennsylvania, replacing traffic lights in New York, buying or renovating buses in Texas and New York, or a creating a transit system in Alaska? What about money for a hospital in North Carolina or support for a soup kitchen for the homeless in California or services for the homeless and addicted in Kentucky? Given huge deficits and a rising national debt, there are some egregious examples of spending that we could do without in the omnibus bill. At the same time, given less and less political will for important government services, a blanket condemnation of all the earmarked spending - including that for infrastructure, transportation, social welfare, research, or even recreation, arts and culture - also misses the point.

The larger point is not the earmarks. The real reason we should care about this omnibus spending bill is because it represents a serious breakdown in the budget process for 2004. One problem is the lack of congressional oversight on the massive bill. Also of major concern is the lack of government accountability to citizens on how their tax dollars really get appropriated. Additionally, the minority party has not been privy to the discussions of compromise for the omnibus bill. In fact, balance of power has shifted to the executive branch, leaving compromises between the President and his party.

This process undermines the checks and balances built into our constitutional framework by giving the executive branch unusual powers. Our system requires the legislative branch to prescribe spending and the executive branch to dispose of the actions. However, under the omnibus bill, the executive branch gained the power to tell the legislative branch what it wants - using the threat of a veto and government shutdown. In this year's scenario, the President was even able to reverse legislative provisions that had already been agreed upon in both the House and the Senate. One example is the FCC media ownership rules. Both the House and the Senate rejected a FCC rule that allowed a company to own TV stations reaching 45 percent of the nation's viewers, rather than the previous standard of 35 percent. However, the President told key leaders that it must be 39 percent. Coincidentally (or not) this allows Viacom Inc., owner of CBS and UPN, and News Corp., owner of Fox, both of which exceeded the percent limit because of mergers, to avoid having to sell any of their TV stations.

What will happen next?

The Senate might not pass the omnibus bill. The portion of government that is funded through the remaining seven appropriations bills could continue to operate under continuing resolutions or even a long-term continuing resolution. This would mean no increased appropriations. But failure to pass the omnibus bill would be a loss for activities that were slated for increases, such as more funding for AIDS and veterans. It would also mean that a scheduled pay increase for civil servants would not occur, and departments and agencies would have to make do with last year's funding.

On the other hand, the Senate might pass the bill, including all the ill-considered pork projects. If the omnibus bill is passed, several policy changes would go into effect; for instance, the Labor Department’s overtime provision supported by the administration increased restrictions on travel to Cuba, delay in country of origin labeling of meat, changes in government procurement rules, and the media ownership rules mentioned above.

This year’s omnibus spending bill is the result of a seriously flawed budget process. Whether the omnibus is passed or not, flawed results are likely to be the outcome – making the losers the American people.

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