The reaction to the massive appropriations bill that was somewhat fittingly bestowed the nickname “CRomnibus” — because the measure is equal parts a continuing resolution, an omnibus spending bill, and a giant, mutated monster plucked from a Troma film — has been, let’s say, passionate confusion. Lawmakers have defended it with the time honored pile of rubbish: nobody’s happy with it, so it must be pretty good. Partisans have quickly boiled it down to either being mana from heaven or unbridled tyranny.
In truth, it’s a lot of things. 1,603 pages of things. Important things. Lasting things. Immediately jumping to any absolute moral or political adjudication does a disservice to the fascinatingly enormous legislative cargo truck Congress just sent barreling down the road to the President’s desk, filled with provisions, funds, declarations, and wheels falling off in every direction.
Congress, which has largely played the part of a broken car over the past several years, is suddenly in quite a bit of motion.
Congress is supposed to pass 12 appropriations bills, annually, that set spending priorities and fund federal agencies. This is how the government has been traditionally funded throughout most of the republic’s history. Until they stopped doing that. The Washington Post’s Wonkblog notes that the dysfunction that has sharply moved the country away from dependable budget bills being passed on time began about 30 years ago. Since then, it’s only occurred four times: 1977, 1989, 1995, and 1997. As partisanship has grown, the ability to negotiate these appropriations bills and the overall annual budget has been voted off the island. Stop-gap measures — short term continuing resolutions — have appeared as an alternative, which parties can use as leverage to make legislative demands.
With the midterm elections putting Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, the Democrats’ biggest fear was (is) to have to manage the Tea Party faction within the GOP threatening a government shutdown every couple of months in exchange for a list of demands. The Republican establishment, conversely, doesn’t want another shutdown to occur on their watch, as they are messy and don’t go over well with voters.
The CRomnibus is the result of those orchestral partisan concerns. $1.1 trillion in spending that funds the government for nine months and comes stuffed with enough pork — provisions that have nothing to do with and no place being injected into a bill that funds the government — as to qualify as a legislative arms race. Some highlights and lowlights:
- Campaign Finance. If Alaskans learned one thing about politics in the midterms, it’s that there just wasn’t enough money involved. So, this weekend’s package raised the limits on campaign contributions north of $1.55 million to political parties. Democrats cried foul, noting that the move empowers millionaire and billionaire donors to use their coffers to secure even more influence over elections.
- Marijuana. Belay that joint, colonists. In November, residents in our nation’s capital voted 70-30 to legalize marijuana, allowing a “person over 21 years old to posses up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use and grow up to six cannabis plants in their home. It also allows people to transfer up to one ounce of marijuana to another person, but not sell it.” But, because Washington D.C. falls under the jurisdiction of Congress, lawmakers used a bill funding the federal government to block what the people voted to do. This is what democracy looks like.
- Threats Abroad. Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wanted Congress to have a full discussion and debate about a possible Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against the Islamic State, but nobody seemed all that interested. So, rather than actually talking about it, he tried unsuccessfully to add it as an amendment to the CRomnibus. Despite no AUMF, President Obama received the full $64 billion he requested for the Pentagon to fund the ongoing operations in Iraq and Syria against militant groups. $5 billion is set aside for the anti-IS efforts, including $1.6 billion for “training ‘moderate’ rebel forces in Syria and an extra half-billion… to equip those forces.” Another provision prohibits the transfer or release detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and Egypt is allocated $1.3 billion in military aide. Also included in the package was $5.4 billion in emergency funding to fight the Ebola virus — a tick under the $6.2 billion requested by the Obama administration.
- Less Funding, Continued Threats to Immigration Efforts. Despite asking for $3.7 billion to address the issue of unaccompanied minors immigrating from South America, Obama received just $80 million; allocated to the Health and Human Services Budget. The reduced amount is figured to help immediate treatment of the children who are already here, but will not come close to an amount significant to combat the problems causing them to make the perilous trek to the U.S. The Department of Homeland Security was not funded by the bill and will require a separate bill to do so. The Republicans have indicated that they will seek to use that opportunity to defund Obama’s executive order. The department is funded through March.
- IRS and EPA Budget Cuts. In a win for Republicans that will feature prominently in 2016 campaign literature, the budgets for the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency were trimmed considerable; a $345.6 reduction to the former and $60 million from the latter. The staffing cuts to the EPA will put additional strains on the Obama administration’s stated desire of combating climate change. The Food and Drug Administration received a $37 million raise, mostly going toward the Food Safety Modernization Act.
- Deregulating Wall Street. JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimond, as reported by Think Progress, was personally lobbying individual lawmakers to support an amendment — which no one is taking credit for — that will roll back a key provision of the Dodd-Frank Act. Forbes writes that the amendment, which was first written by Citigroup, “enables the big banks once again to use insured deposits and other taxpayer subsidies and guarantees to gamble in the derivatives markets — the very type of business that drove the 2008 financial crisis and the economic devastation that followed.”
Alaska’s congressional delegation all voted in support of the CRomnibus. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) touted several provisions specific to the state in a press release on Saturday. Included are multiple appropriations for the military, veterans care, medical research, energy assistance, infrastructure spending, and arctic research.
“This bill is not perfect, but it is the product of bipartisan negotiations and directs resources critical to our state – protecting the health and well-being of Alaskans and our fisheries, prioritizing our defense and investing in infrastructure for our state’s needs and America’s Arctic future,” Murkowski offered in a press release.
Outgoing Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska) managed to roll a bill he and Sen. John Boozman (R-Arizona) sponsored into the CRomnibus. S.932 pre-funds veterans’ services, like the Veterans Health Administration Medical Services, Medical Support and Compliance, Medical Facilities, Veterans Benefits Administration, Native American Veteran Housing Loan Program, and other general operating expenses. The effort aimed at providing cushioning, so that should the government shutdown, these services are still funded.
“The Senate has done the right thing for veterans and included this measure to shield them from harmful effects of a government shutdown, like delays in the processing of disability, pension and survivor benefits,” Begich said on Sunday.
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), also via press release, defended his vote: “While this piece of legislation is no way for the Congress to operate, I do believe it takes a number of serious steps to stand up for fiscal responsibility, reduce the size of the federal government, defend the homeland and protect our men and women in uniform, and target much needed reforms for growing federal agencies like the EPA and IRS.”
Young emphasized various state-specific appropriations:
New Partisan Lines, New Legislative Vehicle.
To pass the bill, an unlikely coalition had to overcome growing schisms inside each of the two political parties. On the Democratic side of the aisle, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke strongly against the bill, denouncing the provision rolling back Dodd-Frank. Her faction within the Democratic Party swelled to include key figures like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. 139 Democrats in the House joined 21 Democrats in the Senate to oppose the measure, as well as independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont).
It wasn’t a much warmer picture among Republicans.
After the bill passed Congress on Thursday night, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) brokered a deal with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) to hold a vote in the upper chamber scheduled for Monday. But Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) took to the senate floor on Friday night (after McConnell had gone home for the day) and invoked a procedural move, forcing lawmakers to stay over the weekend. This maneuver forced an early vote which had two major effects; none particularly helpful for Cruz.
The first effect was a vote on Cruz’s objection, which questioned the constitutionality of Obama’s executive action on immigration. This failed spectacularly, 22-74, with 21 Republicans (including McConnell and Murkowski) opposing the move. The second effect was a technicality. With the senate still in session, Reid was handed the opportunity to call an executive session and file for cloture on 24 of the administration’s nominees. That means that Obama’s picks for surgeon general, the head of Immigration and Customs, and many others will be put to a vote as early as Monday.
As the dust settles, we’re left with a messy, wildly complicated, and thoroughly anti-democratic appropriations bill which might be the new normal. We also have four competing factions within our two-party system wishing to assert dominance. And, on the bright side, the government will be funded for the next nine months.
But, most interestingly, Congress has discovered a brand new way of going about the legislative process — legislation by the bundle. Something that School House Rock would need an entire season to lend music and explanation to. Functional government would allow a debate on standalone bills for the vast majority of riders attached to the CRomnibus, by members of both parties. But we don’t have one of those right now.