MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

The New Omnibus Is Terrible Because Congress Is Broken

The spending bill is a product of a broken, secretive, centralized legislative process.

Rand Paul's Twitter feedRand Paul's Twitter feedToday, the House is voting on an omnibus spending bill that runs in excess of 2,300 pages. Congress must pass the $1.3 trillion bill by midnight on Friday in order to keep the government open—a deadline that has been known for weeks—but the legislation wasn't released until last night. Until then, the bill was shrouded in secrecy, with no text available to the public or to lawmakers, who had effectively no opportunity to publicly debate its merits, or offer input on its content.

The omnibus is nearly certain to pass anyway. Whether the legislators voting on it like it, or even know what's in it, barely matters.

This isn't unusual. Legislating this way—in secret, at the last minute, with few opportunities for outside input or debate—has become the norm, especially, but not only, when it comes to budgeting.

It's a way of running the government that benefits congressional leadership and their allies at the expense of less powerful lawmakers, and the broader public interest. It means that Congress operates in a state of perpetual low-level crisis, and it breeds dissension and distrust in the entire system. It's one of many bad processes that contributes to unstable policy outcomes and political dysfunction.

In politics, almost no one actually cares about process. When lawmakers do complain about process problems, it's often selective and self-interested. Politicians almost never campaign on process reforms. Talking about process causes voters to tune out. Process is arcane. It's technical. It's arbitrary. It's boring.

But the processes by which the government makes laws, spends money, and implements regulations matter nonetheless. Because effective processes are a way of encoding values—fiscal, political, civil—into a system.

The best government processes are designed to encourage fairness, transparency, openness, inclusivity, and accountability. They offer mechanisms for bringing people of differing views together for respectful and productive debate. They disperse power by offering a forum for minority views. Maintaining good process is important for many of the same reasons that maintaining rule of law is important. A good process does not necessarily ensure an outcome that you want. But it ensures one that all parties involved can accept, at least for the moment.

But today's political leaders don't care about process. And their disinterest has substantive policy consequences.

In December of last year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held a late night vote on a draft of the tax reform law just hours after the text was released. Some of the pages were crossed out, and parts of the legislation were handwritten in the margins. At a press conference afterwards, McConnell, however, dismissed complaints about the rushed vote: "You complain about process when you're losing, and that's what you heard on the floor tonight."

In McConnell's cynical worldview, worrying about process is for losers. All that matters is winning.

As it turns out, the tax law was rife with glitches and errors. Restaurants and other retailers were unintentionally denied access to write-offs for business improvements. Another affects the sale of crops to large agriculture businesses. Another makes baseball trades less likely, thanks to the way it affects capital gains taxes. These are just a few examples. The Chamber of Commerce recently compiled 15 pages of questions about how the tax law is supposed to work for companies large and small. The tax law has been a political success. But functionally it's a mess.

Republicans are now attempting to fix some of the mistakes in the law as part of the omnibus, bargaining with Democrats in the process. This is lawmaking at its most depressingly predictable. Republicans want to use one rushed, secretive bill to fix another one.

McConnell also said something else at that late night press conference last year. "I'm totally confident this is a revenue neutral bill." He predicted that the bill, which all expert analysis said would increase the deficit, would actually be a "revenue producer."

He was, of course, wrong. Thanks in part to the tax bill, the deficit is projected to be larger than expected this year, and is now set to top $1 trillion for the first time in years. In an indirect way, this too was an abuse of process, of the expectation of some minimal level of honesty and transparency about legislation. Process is not always about speific rules and procedures. It also about shared norms.

Republican leadership sometimes pays lip service to process concerns. When Paul Ryan became Speaker of the House in 2015, he promised to be less controlling and more transparent than his predecessor, John Boehner. Under his speakership, the House would be "more open, more inclusive, more deliberative, more participatory," he said. "We're not going to bottle up the process so much and predetermine the outcome of everything around here."

Instead, Ryan has run the most closed and centralized House in history, as Politico reported last year. The story is similar in the Senate. When the government shut down briefly in February, it was because McConnell denied Sen. Rand Paul an up or down vote on an amendment that would draw attention to the way the deal broke the federal spending caps put in place under the Obama administration.

Lawmakers in the House have been repeatedly and systematically denied the opportunity to offer amendments to legislation. Legislation is simply presented for up or down vote, with little time to read, process, or debate.

The centralization of power in Congress not a problem that is limited to Republicans. When Harry Reid was majority leader, the Senate ran on a notoriously closed process, one that McConnell promised would change. But Republican leadership holds the power now, and has the responsibility to make changes.

Even many rank and file GOP lawmakers recognize that there's a problem. "I have complete respect for our leadership, but when they foist this on us with less than 36 hours, I think it's very irresponsible," Ted Budd (R–N.C.), said about the omnibus. "Shame, shame. A pox on both Houses—and parties. $1.3 trillion. Busts budget caps. 2200 pages, with just hours to try to read it," tweeted Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.).

To be fair, some low-level steps may be in the works. In recent years, the budget process, a series of steps and deadlines that is supposed to happen each year, has broken down. Congress hasn't met all of its deadlines since the late 1990s. That's one of the reasons why short-term spending bills and bloated omnibus spending bills have become the norm. Last month's budget deal created a Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, a bipartisan panel tasked with recommending improvements to the way that Congress goes about crafting annual budget plans by the end of November. The committee's creation has spurred outside groups to offer options for improvement, many of which are worth considering.

But I worry that a committee is just a way of pretending to solve the deeper problem, which is that too many politicians have come to view process as something to be manipulated for short-term partisan advantage rather than as something valuable, and worth preserving, on its own.

It's true, of course, that a better process alone won't ensure better policy. But unlike the rushed, secretive, centralized process that gave us yet another ungainly omnibus, it might at least create the opportunity for change.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    I miss the relative innocence of "you have to read it to find out what's in it."

  • Citizen X - #6||

    I mean "pass it to find out what's in it." Goddamn.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    To be sure, I also miss the days of "you have to read it to find out what's in it."

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Nice article. Fewer and fewer representatives, and even senators, want to make policy these days. It's too controversial. They cede power to the leadership, even as Congress cedes power to the president.

  • DJK||

    And then they all cede the real lawmaking power to the regulatory agencies. 2300 page omnibus bill? That's nothing compared to the Federal Register.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    We should not have Omnibus bills, period. The only problem is I don't know how to logically enforce a system where each bill is only one idea or law.

  • Libertymike||

    Maybe we shouldn't have any bills - unless you want to continue the chaos, dysfunction, empire, mass murder, and such.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I am completely okay with moving in that direction. Let's see what happens.

  • Flinch||

    We're almost there. We have our chaos and dysfunction already - we've seen one proper budget passed in the last decade I think? Half of that malfeasance was Harry Reid abusing OMB rules to re-spend the stimulus money repeatedly from the 2009 budget. Everything is running on autopilot with continuing resolutions to try to make it look legit, but government has arrived at the point of too big to succeed, as agencies sometimes are forced to advertise on account of they aren't always able to shovel all the money out the door by September 31st. That by the way is how a PSA that should cost about $75k to produce turns into $3M.
    The only people who know what's in these omnibus bills are the lobbyists who write them. In the final analysis, we don't really have a congress anymore: no knowledge, no debate, no oversight... no clue as to why they draw a paycheck. But they do love the free lunches and the klieg lights.

  • IamNotEvil||

    All legislative bills must be described and implemented in10 or fewer double spaced pages with a minimum 10 point don't. Anything that exceeds this is good.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    1 double spaced page, 12 point font minimum, and must include a repeal of an existing law.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Also seems sadly unlikely, since people seem to believe that Congresspeople don't do enough already.

  • DJK||

    A sunset provision should also be required.

  • Eeyore||

    How about making every person in congress who wants to vote on a bill take a test that asks 100 random questions from the bill. If they can't get 80 answers right they must enter an automatic no vote. Then they have to pay a fine of 10,000 dollars, skip dinner, and sit in the corner. That building probably doesn't have enough corners.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Our ancestors built it as a circle to allow arguably an infinite number of corners.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    Freeze the length of the Federal Register such that any bill that is passed must remove an equivalent number of pages. Then require reduction by 1% every year.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    ...the legislation wasn't released until last night. Until then, the bill was shrouded in secrecy, with no text available to the public or to lawmakers, who had effectively no opportunity to publicly debate its merits, or offer input on its content.

    The omnibus is nearly certain to pass anyway.

    They have to pass it to see what's in it.

  • BYODB||

    Fuck McConnell. I can only hope someone primaries that asshole.

  • Finrod||

    GOP congressmen should be ashamed that we're nearly 6 months after the start of the fiscal year and they still haven't finished the damn budget. Democratic congressmen should be ashamed too but they've proven long ago that they're incapable of shame.

  • DJK||

    Why would they be ashamed? This is a feature, not a bug.

  • Flinch||

    No, they aren't ashamed. They are proud uniparty members ['never Trumpers'], but can't advertise as loss of the duopoly mirage will damage fundraising operations. What's going on is they are slow walking Trump into 2020: the more they do nothing, the less the president gets. Kick the can is the only thing congress is really good at, as I see it.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Congress isn't broken. The GOP is broken.

  • DJK||

    You realize the phrase "pass it to see what's in it" was coined by a Democrat, right? It's not a red vs. blue issue. It's a federal government vs. everyone else issue.

  • ||

    And if you think the 'last minute omnibus spending bill' approach hasn't consistently and repeatedly left shit on the hands of members from both sides of the aisle for quite some time, then it's because you're actively trying to lick the shit off your preferred side's hands.

  • Flinch||

    What GOP? They died when the chose to become mute spectators as a rogue prosecutor from Texas indicted Tom Delay, then produced a solid zero in court, once it got away from the judge he shopped for. Dems would never tolerate this situation in reverse, even for the despicable Wiener and his bad habits were he the target. That matter would be settled later in the form of cutting off campaign cash flows from key sources after they launched fire and fury from any media outlet they could commandeer and whip on every republican in sight.

  • ace_m82||

    An-Caps don't look that bad, now do they?

    The solution, of course, is to vote "no" on literally EVERYTHING that violates a certain rule (text available 20 days before vote?).

    Of course, almost none of them have the balls sisu to do it.

  • BYODB||

    Nah, An-Caps still end up looking dumb just because they fail to understand that from anarchy oppressive government is born.

    I can however at least agree on your solution, but I don't think Congress misses Dr. No all that much.

  • ace_m82||

    from anarchy oppressive government is born

    There is no such thing as a non-oppressive government. Government initiates force ("oppresses") twice by its mere existence, once when it taxes, and again when it attempts to enforce a monopoly on force.

    I could agree with what you say if you meant that anarchies don't last forever, and then anything replacing that is an oppressive government (which is redundant).

    Or, you understand "anarchy" as meaning "lots of violence", and that's just an issue of the actual term 'An-archy" - without Archon - being mistaken for "lots of violence" (which people call "anarchy" because they think that only government can fix violence, even though it IS violence).

  • BYODB||

    I'm merely pointing out that any form of anarchy, capitalist or otherwise, is so temporary that it's measured in days, months, or years instead of decades, centuries, or millennia. It's unstable to the point where it's pointless to talk about it in any meaningful way in terms of governance as it's inherently transitory in nature.

    In short anarchy is what happens between stable forms of government.

  • ace_m82||

    It's unstable to the point where it's pointless to talk about it in any meaningful way in terms of governance as it's inherently transitory in nature.

    You missed a lot of history.
    www.mises.org/library/medieval.....government
    www.mises.org/library/possibility-private-law

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Yes, oppressive governments never ever grow from theoretically minimal governments.

    The solution to oppression isn't republicanism or minarchism or what have you. The solution is eternal vigilance over one's natural rights as an individual human being.

  • Jerryskids||

    Is it a violation of the NAP to beat the shit out of people who vote to have the government deprive you of your natural human rights? I don't think so - hiring somebody to do your aggression for you doesn't absolve you of liability for the aggression.

  • Jerryskids||

    I mean, if it did absolve you of liability, it wouldn't be a violation of the NAP for me to hire a thug to beat the shit out of some people, would it? If you vote for some scumbag politician who wants to deprive me of my right to keep and bear arms, for example, I'd consider that an aggression.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    I suppose it would also depend on how much you think a single vote matters.

  • BYODB||

    I'll take 'not at all' for $1000.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    "The solution is eternal vigilance over one's natural rights as an individual human being."

    I used to think that a document which spells out precisely what government is only allowed to do with some addenda of rights to be held by the people would be enough.

    But alas there's no level of precision in language that is enough to stop a government run amok. When interstate commerce can mean anything, "Congress shall make no law" allows for laws, and necessary and proper becomes a free license to control the masses, only eternal vigilance can suffice.

  • CE||

    Or just vote "No" on everything.
    Eventually the problem solves itself.

  • Floozy||

    Yeah. I just think that every reasonable (are there any) member of Congress should by default vote no on any bill if they have not had sufficient time to read and process it. But the whole system is about keeping Washington going and few seem to truly buck that.

  • CE||

    I would propose the following process, just to be safe:

    1. Publish all new proposed laws on congress.org for public review.
    2. Gather comments for no less than 1 year from the general public.
    3. Give Congress 90 days to update the bill to address citizen concerns.
    4. Post the bill for another 10 month public review period.
    5. If the government runs out of money, shut it down and allow Congress to proceed on a volunteer basis.
    6. Check in again 2 years later to see if they've made any progress.
    7. Keep the government shut down in the meantime.

  • Flinch||

    You know, you could keep congress from convening outright, just by declaring the capitol grounds a school, and disarming everybody on the hill. Also, make sure police are moved to a location where they physically cannot reach the capitol steps in under 4 minutes. Allow just one "resource officer" for the house and one for the senate to be present during hours. Then, you'll see congress adjourn and just stay home. Will we notice? NO. Spending is set up to work on autopilot, and most new laws are being written by the executive branch anyway [labeling them 'regulations' as the only means to pretend the separation of powers isn't dead]. There's only two real branches left today: Executive and Judiciary. Congress has become lower than pig slop, outside of confirmation hearings.

  • flyfishnevada||

    Remember when the GOP was incensed that the Democrats did this very thing on multiple occasions? The fact some people still believe the two parties are different speaks to the collective stupidity of the electorate...or at least the fringe elements that are engaged. The Dems and the GOP want the same thing, money and power, they just can't agree on how to get there.

    Or maybe this is 6D chess and we'll all have an "a-ha" moment in a few years and see that they really had our best interests at heart the whole time...Bwahahahaha!

  • Iheartskeet||

    ...and it looks like Trump will sign the damn thing. I voted for him, but over the past 2 months, he's rapidly moved to meeting the very lowest expectations I had of him (speaking of policy, not personal). Oh well, we got one good year.

  • DJK||

    Gorsuch has joined Thomas in questioning Chevron. That's a major win of sorts.

  • TommyInIdaho||

    Throw the rascals out!

  • Flinch||

    I'm thinking we need a constitutional amendment to curtail hideous inventions like an omnibus bill: full house or senate votes may not occur on any bill [except where the president declares national emergency] sooner than a day later for each 100 pages emerging from committee, including during time of war. The reason these bills are corruptible, is the impossibility of real discovery and debate. If congress will not debate, then what are they doing there? Joe Sixpack can't tell the executive branch what to spend, or what the DOJ may act on.
    Some of you remember a world before the great society, and what is now a quaint thing called regular order. Before the "great society" hit the fan, we had a government that wasn't so big it needed an omnibus bill - the business of funding agencies and programs could occur in linear fashion if congress chose to do so. When's the last time we had a hearing/debate on what the budget of HUD should be as a stand alone matter? I can't think of it ever happening in my lifetime, but perhaps I missed both occasions.

  • Shoreline1||

    Exhibitions of long term planning, or any planning at all, by our government is one reason I stand for the national anthem. It proves to the world that our system of government is superior to those of other countries and is justification for militarily promoting it around the world.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    Congress can't be broken, because this article can be written over and over again....

    When XXXX became YYYY he promised ZZZZ

    Instead, XXXX has run the most closed and centralized AAAAA in history, as WWWWW reported last year.

    Even many rank and file LLLLL lawmakers recognize that there's a problem

    To be fair, blah blah blah.

    Let's all just bend over and present our wallets, then get on with the business of government.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online