Time to stop end of year omnibus bills

The end of the calendar year is supposed to be a time for merry celebrations, but Congress makes it about consolidated appropriations. Yet again, the American people are being treated to a “Consolidated Appropriations Act” that’s thousands of pages long, crammed with important policies, and largely unread by the people who will vote on it.

It’s called the Consolidated Appropriations Act because there are supposed to be appropriations acts. Congress has a committee system that divides responsibilities for overseeing various parts of the federal government, and they are each supposed to produce their own spending bills in a process meant to take months in preparation for the next fiscal year. In that time, Congress is supposed to debate the spending, offer amendments, and vote on each bill separately.

Instead, Congress waits until arbitrary statutory deadlines, squeezes all the bills together, and announces a vote within days on some massive number of pages authorizing a mind-boggling amount of spending. This year, it’s 4,155 pages and $1.7 trillion. That’s about $409 million per page. It’s full of all the special-interest handouts and wasteful programs that Americans have become accustomed to.

This bill comes after Congress did a similar thing with the National Defense Authorization Act, packaging all sorts of policies into one $858 billion bill and saying members must vote for it or else they hate the troops. And this was all during the lame-duck period when politicians are least accountable to voters. Some of these members already know they are not returning, and voters altered the balance of partisan control in November when they elected a GOP House majority.

Congress doesn’t have to do this bill right now. It could pass a continuing resolution to keep current spending levels and hash this out at the start of next year when the new congress is sworn in. But getting appropriations out of the way now, right before Christmas when nobody really wants to fight, is mutually self-serving for Democrats and Republicans. Democrats will likely get better results than they would if they wait until Republicans assume their House majority. And Republicans won’t have to deal with the threat of a government shutdown as their first order of business while they try to hold together their fractious, bare-majority conference.

There is supposed to be a distinction between mandatory spending and discretionary spending, but often, it is all presented as mandatory. Members are told by leadership that they must vote for a giant spending bill to avert a government shutdown or avoid hitting the debt ceiling or prevent heavy budget cuts. Mandatory spending — on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — is still driving the national debt, but if members can’t even meaningfully debate the parts that are supposed to be discretionary, there’s little hope of ever addressing our entitlement insolvency.

It is important to remember that this is how congressional leadership wants this process to be. They have the power to change it whenever they like, but quickly spending taxpayer dollars to keep government going and special interests satisfied with as little resistance as possible is simply easier. But it is not a recipe for responsible use of taxpayer money.

Congress’s spending problems are well-known, as are the shortcomings of rushed, omnibus appropriations. At some point, Congress will have to choose to stop doing things this way and spend money through a proper legislative process. We see no reason it shouldn’t start now.

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