Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., once famously boasted about the Obamacare legislation, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” However, what was once a unique feature of Obamacare has apparently grown in popularity. Senate Democrats’ last massive omnibus spending bill indicates not knowing what’s in a bill before passing it has become standard operating procedure.
In this case, the dispute involves provisions in the massive omnibus spending measure that Democrats rammed through Congress right before adjourning last December. It turns out the process to assemble the bill was so rushed and slapdash, lawmakers still can’t decipher the meaning of one section.
Hurried Process Behind Closed Doors
A recent article in Politico explained the dispute, which involves Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) programs for workers whose jobs were allegedly displaced by foreign trade. As it turns out, the bill contained half a billion dollars in funding for TAA programs that had expired — without including provisions reauthorizing those programs:
The issue, say congressional aides involved in the omnibus negotiations, goes back to the year-end crunch to finalize the spending package. As [Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron] Wyden [D-Ore.] and trade lawmakers negotiated on TAA, appropriations lawmakers wrote in the $500 million in case lawmakers arrived at a deal to reauthorize it. That deal never materialized, but the $500 million provision was not altered in the rush to finish the package before the winter holidays. The mix-up was an ‘artifact of timing,’ as one Appropriations Committee aide put it.
This hang-up takes Pelosi’s 2010 Obamacare comments to a whole other level. When it comes to the omnibus, we had to pass the bill so the people who wrote it could find out what was in it — quite literally.
At the risk of saying “I told you so,” this is what happens when Congress passes massive bills — in this case, an omnibus spending measure totaling 4,155 pages — that several dozen leadership staffers negotiate in the dark under a closed and rushed process. The TAA mess demonstrates not only that the elected members of Congress don’t have time to understand and fully comprehend these bills, but that the unelected staffers who write them behind closed doors don’t either.
The insanity doesn’t end there, however. Wyden, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee that should have reauthorized TAA in the omnibus but didn’t, wants the Labor Department to go ahead and spend the $500 million anyway. In theory, Wyden should care about protecting his committee’s jurisdiction and ensuring that Senate Finance Committee members get due input into the process. But Democrats blame Republicans for holding up the reauthorization process to prevent the TAA reauthorization (as opposed to the spending) from being attached to the omnibus. Wyden clearly just wants the administration to ignore his committee entirely.
On the other hand, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., doesn’t think the spending can go ahead. Believe it or not, in this instance at least, a Democrat actually wants to 1) follow the rule of law and 2) not spend money. (I wouldn’t bet money on it happening again, though.) It’s unclear how exactly the dispute will get resolved. But what should be crystal clear is that Congress must restore some sanity to the chaotic process that got us to this point in the first place.
Stop the Omnibus Madness
If any other federal agency created a disaster like the TAA mess, Congress would almost certainly call the individuals in to get to the bottom of what happened: Who did what, when, and why? Unfortunately, even with a new Republican majority, House committees are unlikely to subpoena the leadership and committee staffers responsible for this comical cluster.
At the very least, Congress can prevent these kinds of errors from happening in the future by refusing to pass omnibus bills. Or, to put it another way, maybe Washington shouldn’t try to fund the entire federal government via a shambolic process that closely resembles a college student pulling an all-nighter to write a term paper they had procrastinated on for months.
To the rest of America, stopping the omnibus madness represents sheer common sense. It’s such a novel idea, one that Congress should try for once.