Commentary

Watch Out for the Omnibus

By Stephen Slivinski
A version of this article also appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune on December 2, 2004.

Here comes another huge budget omnibus bill barreling down Pennsylvania Avenue, and taxpayers are right in its path. Since members of Congress were unable to pass a budget on time this year they instead hopped on the omnibus and floored the throttle.

The omnibus is a unique vehicle. The more passengers it picks up, the faster it moves. You see, the more pork there is in an omnibus bill, the quicker the omnibus can plow through both chambers of Congress. Adding “earmarks” — the preferred congressional term for unnecessary federal spending on a politician’s home district — removes political obstacles from the route of the omnibus.

This year’s omnibus is no exception. The bill consisted of 1,690 pages and weighed 14 pounds, will cost taxpayers $388 billion, and included close to $16 billion in “earmarked” pork projects. And it only took a week to speed through the process.

When the bill passed, the press reported that this omnibus was fiscally responsible. The Washington Post suggested it was an indication of a “new austerity” in Congress, and the Wall Street Journal announced that “belt-tightening” had begun. The House and Senate leadership were happy with the finished product. “I’m very proud of the fact that we held the line,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. “A lean and clean package” is how House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young described it.

It is true that non-defense spending — other than entitlements — will only increase by 1 percent as a result of this bill. But that does not include the cost of the inevitable supplemental spending bills that always crop up.

Even despite that, a 1 percent increase only seems tight compared to the average annual 5 percent increase in non-defense discretionary spending since 2001. It does not seem tight when you notice there is a $348 billion deficit estimated for 2005 and that Congress, shortly before it considered the omnibus, increased the debt limit of the U.S. government by $800 billion because government had too many bills it couldn’t pay without giving itself a credit limit increase. The non-defense budget is still going to be 17 percent bigger than before President Bush arrived in office thanks to this omnibus. In fact, saying a 1 percent increase is frugal ignores the fact that a cut in spending would have been in order.

The pork projects in the bill actually account for around 4 percent of the total spending level. Just getting rid of those pork projects would mean a net 3 percent cut in government from last year’s comparable non-defense spending level. Instead, Congress can be perceived as being thrifty while simultaneously spending $225,000 for the National Wild Turkey Federation in South Carolina, $1 million for the “world birding center” in Texas, and $75,000 to renovate the Merry Go Round Playhouse Albany, NY, for example.

Unfortunately, rushing omnibus bills through the legislative process at the end of the year has become the rule, not the exception. Other than fiscal 2002, every budget since 1998 has been at least in part an omnibus. Because the bills are so large and move so quickly through Congress, there is no time to actually read what is in them until it is too late. In other words, many things that might never end up in a budget bill under normal circumstances do so when an omnibus rolls through town.

Therein lies the problem. Every time Congress fails to pass a budget on time, members opt for a solution that encourages more government bloat. Even if Congress wanted to take time to assess the usefulness of everything in the bill, there wouldn’t be enough days in the year to do so. Government has gotten too big, and it funds too many programs, yet every year Congress simply gives a pass to most of them because it can’t or won’t take the time to sort them all out. Big government leads to omnibus bills, which in turn leads to even bigger government.

This omnibus could have been seen as the last hurrah for the GOP leadership — one last stiff drink before entering rehab — if only it was accompanied by a commitment to reform the budget process or cut spending in the future. But the lack of spending restraint in Congress or the White House over the past four years does not provide much hope.

Stephen Slivinski is director of budget studies at the Cato Institute and co-author of the forthcoming Cato study, “A Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors: 2004.”