9 Ridiculous Things About the Omnibus Budget Bill

Spending. The Pentagon. TIGER grants. Border Wall. NSF. Planned Parenthood. CDC. Head Start. The whole process. I can't take it anymore.


John Greim/Newscom

Less than 24 hours after the 2,300-page bill was made public, the U.S. House of Representatives, by a vote of 256 to 167, approved a $1.3 trillion spending package that funds the federal government through the end of the fiscal year on September 30.

The omnibus bill still has to clear the Senate, where a vote could happen sometime Thursday night or Friday. In what is surely not a comprehensive list, here are nine ridiculous things about the catch-all spending measure.

The Amount of Spending

Not too long ago, Republicans in Congress—led by the current speaker of the House, Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)—were so concerned about limiting the growth of government that they imposed caps on federal spending. Now? Not so much.

According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the omnibus bill spends $143 billion more than would have been allowed under the sequester-era caps and $52 billion more than the ceiling set by the Budget Control Act of 2011. The spending increases are bipartisan, with Republicans getting additional funding for the military in return for spending more on domestic programs favored by Democrats.

The bill is a fiscal embarrassment in just about every way imaginable. Unemployment is low, the economy is humming along, and we are only a few months removed from the passage of a tax reform bill that will reduce future government revenues. Spending more money—lots more money—makes no sense.

More Toys for the Pentagon

The beginning stages of the first-ever audit of the Defense Department have already uncovered $800 million that simply vanished from the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency, and there is surely more waste to be found inside the world's biggest military budget. But that's not going to stop Congress from throwing an additional $144 billion at the Pentagon for the purchase of new equipment.

The new military spending includes the purchase of an additional 143 military aircraft. "That's great news for major defense primes like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, both of which stand to make billions more from the additional sales," reports Defense News.

Killer Bridges

The pedestrian bridge on the campus of Florida International University that collapsed two weeks ago, killing six people, was funded in part by an $11.4 million grant from the Department of Transportation's TIGER (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery) program. The omnibus budget bill will triple funding for that program, because apparently the Pentagon isn't the only federal department where racking up a body count is rewarded rather than punished.

Even when it's not helping fund collapsing bridges, TIGER is a mess, awarding grants that subsidize city officials' bad decisions. Consider Atlanta, where a streetcar project got $47 million in TIGER grants in 2010 (the most of any project that year) but ended up costing three times as much as expected while creating about a quarter of the promised jobs.

The Government Accountability Office found that TIGER projects often violated internal controls meant to prevent projects from being used as political patronage. Funding was often doled out to proposals that were rated as inferior to other contenders or that came in after deadlines. The Department of Transportation's chief economist referred to most of the cost-benefit analysis conducted by grant applicants as "pretty bad," as Reason's Christian Britschgi has detailed. Nothing says accountability for past mistakes like a 200 percent raise.

The Border Wall

President Donald Trump wanted to spend $23 billion on a border wall between the United States and Mexico, but Congress agreed to allocate just $1.6 billion this year, with some of the funding earmarked for enhanced barricades near San Diego and along the Rio Grande River. A good chunk of the rest will be spent on planning, design, and technology. In other words, it's spending that will be used to justify more spending on Trump's signature immigration policy.

We've been over this before. The Wall Won't Work. But it seems we're going to pay for it anyway.

National Science Foundation

If there were ever an easy target for spending cuts, it's the National Science Foundation. As Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) reminded his followers on Twitter, this is the federal agency that once spent $350,000 in taxpayer money to study whether Japanese quail enjoy doing blow and banging.

And that's not all! The NSF has funded studies teaching sea monkeys how to swim in formation, teaching land monkeys how to gamble, running shrimp on tiny treadmills, running mountain lions on giant treadmills, watching humans play FarmVille, watching humans use Flickr, and building a robot that can fold laundry.

Okay, maybe that last one sounds pretty cool. But none of these things have anything to do with the core functions of government. If you can't even eliminate funding for this nonsense, what can you cut?

Planned Parenthood

It doesn't matter whether you think Planned Parenthood should get federal funding or not. What matters is that it does, and Republicans have spent years and untold fortunes of campaign cash making election-year promises to cut off the organization's funding. Yet the Republican-written and soon-to-be Republican-passed omnibus spending bill includes $500 million for Planned Parenthood.

In the grand scheme of a $1.3 trillion budget bill, the funding for Planned Parenthood isn't the biggest concern. But there might not be a single line item that better exemplifies the extent to which Republicans just don't give a fuck anymore. Either that, or GOP lawmakers realized that they can't run for re-election on promises to cut funding for Planned Parenthood if they actually cut funding for Planned Parenthood.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The CDC gets a $53 million boost in the omnibus bill, which is a good thing because the CDC does important work like controlling deadly diseases and certainly would never waste taxpayer money on things like hiring a "Hollywood liaison" to help television and movie studios develop accurate story lines about diseases.

The increase in CDC funding includes the creation of a new program to study gun violence, which is apparently a disease now. If you want to get a sense of how the CDC handles this type of very specific assignment, take a look at what happened in 1999 when the agency asked Congress for extra funding with the goal of eliminating syphilis in the United States by 2005. The CDC used some of that money to pay for strippers, and not only did syphilis still exist in 2005, but the number of reported cases had increased by 68 percent, as then-Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) noted in a 2007 report.

Head Start

So much for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' goal of destroying the public school system. The omnibus spending bill boosts federal education spending by $2.6 billion while omitting a $250 million private school choice initiative that President Donald Trump requested and ignoring a proposed $1 billion program to encourage open enrollment, something DeVos wanted, according to Education Week.

Meanwhile, Congress will keep tossing money into Head Start. It's been more than eight years since the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concluded that any benefits from the pre-K program "yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of 1st grade." A more recent study from two Vanderbilt University researchers suggests that governments are funding pre-K programs without having a good sense of what these programs should be trying to achieve and without knowing how to judge if they're working. Head Start nevertheless gets a $610 million hike and will cost more than $9.8 billion this year.

Results? Measurements? Accountability? Nah.

The Process Itself

Don't trust the process. The omnibus budget bill was written in secret and made public just hours before it was approved. There was no time for lawmakers to read and digest the bill, let alone offer amendments or try to change the details. This sort of rushed process isn't new, but it is "lawmaking at its most depressingly predictable," says Peter Suderman. Read his explanation of all the ways in which the passage of the omnibus bill undermines the institutional processes of Congress.