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Omnibus Spending Bill Recalls Obey Reform

Back in the 1980s, budget expert Allen Schick half-jokingly predicted that given the increasing use of omnibus bills, the day was not far off when Congress would consider just one bill a year that would be designated “H.R. 1-and-only.”

[IMGCAP(1)]About the same time, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) was helping to advance that prophecy by introducing a proposal to roll all tax, entitlement and appropriations measures, plus the Congressional budget resolution, into one massive bill each year. Those of us working on the Rules Committee’s Task Force on the Budget Process at the time fondly referred to the idea as “The Obey-Wan Kenobie Omnibus Budget Plan.” Task Force Chairman Anthony Beilenson (D-Calif.) initially embraced Obey’s idea as a “terrific budget bill plan” but soon realized that the force was not with him in the Democratic Caucus.

The reason I mention all this now is that Obey’s vision is rapidly becoming a reality by default this year without changing a jot or tittle of the 1974 Budget Act. Not only will Congress not consider a separate budget resolution this year, but most, if not all, of the 12 regular appropriations bills will be rolled into a single bill which may or may not receive full committee consideration.

I am not suggesting this is an intentional power grab by the leadership or Obey. One can hardly be accused of a power grab while abdicating the most important power and responsibility Congress possesses under the Constitution — the power of the purse. That is not a legacy Obey would purposely seek in his final term in Congress, especially given his remarkable distinction as the last chairman to deliver all regular appropriations bills into law, separately and on time, in 1994.

The current short-circuiting of the normal budget process is not so much a power grab as a vacuum-filler — a conscious effort to compensate for Democrats’ bipolar paralysis over spending and deficits. Consequently, party leaders and their appropriations and budget chairmen are acting as a quasi-Budget Committee by devising one-year spending caps that will probably be folded into the war and disaster relief supplemental this week and “deemed” to be part of a final budget resolution that never was.

Obey first introduced his “Truth-in-Budgeting Resolution” in 1982 and touted it in his “additional views” to the fiscal 1983 Budget Committee report. He subsequently testified on his omnibus budget plan before the Beilenson task force. The gist of Obey’s argument was that Congress was spending too much time on “escapist budgeting” that is completely removed from subsequent tax and spending actions. If Congressional budgets are to be worth anything, he argued, they need to be joined in law with real world revenue and expenditure decisions using his “radical comprehensive reform” scheme.

Under the terms of the Obey proposal, House and Senate budget committees would still report their budget resolutions, but they would not be voted on separately by the two houses. The plans would be limited to setting aggregate (but not functional) spending levels, revenue and debt levels, and the resulting surplus or deficit. The budget plan could also contain reconciliation instructions (for changing tax or entitlement laws). However, committees would not be required to follow those instructions, or, for that matter, to adhere to any of the aggregates.

The House Rules Committee would be charged with combining all the committee measures into an omnibus budget bill without change. The Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee bills and any supplementals would make up the first several titles; entitlement changes from each reporting committee, the next titles; and tax changes, the penultimate title. The final title would consist of the Budget Committee’s resolution.

As Obey envisioned it, the omnibus bill would be considered under an open process that would allow each chamber to work its will on priorities. The Budget Committees would have first crack at offering substitute amendments to conform titles to their recommended aggregates. If those attempts failed, the final budget title would still have to be made mathematically consistent with the preceding titles before a final passage vote could be called.

Unlike the 1982 Obey plan in which the omnibus bill would be considered over the spring and summer months, this year’s variation may not be voted on until after November’s midterm elections, making do with a continuing appropriations resolution in the interim.

It is highly unlikely that the omni-measure will become a full-blown Obey-Wan, replete with tax and entitlement changes and a formal budget plan. Nevertheless, institutional erosion from such a process will still be substantial given perfunctory committee and floor consideration, minimal Member input, cursory line-item scrutiny and superficial deliberations. This budgetary big gulp closely resembles the British Parliament’s practice of passing the government’s budget “on the nod,” as the pro forma process is euphemistically called.

Congress has already had enough bad experiences with omnibus spending bills to know they are no way to control the purse strings. Once those tethers are severed, Congress might as well be Wynken, Blynken and Nod, sailing off “on a river of crystal light, into a sea of dew.”

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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