At least the federal government won’t entirely shut down over the next nine months.
That, essentially, is the most promising outcome from the U.S. House and Senate’s passage over the past week of the $1.1 trillion Cromnibus budget bill that funds the federal government for the remainder of the fiscal year — through Sept. 30, 2015.
Given the pattern of stop-and-start budgeting in Washington in recent years that culminated in last year’s two-week government shutdown, it’s a welcome change of pace to have nine months of relative certainty during which federal agencies can carry out their basic duties.
While that part is a clear benefit, it’s disappointing when members of Congress and the public are faced with two stark, lamentable options: approve a gargantuan spending bill that includes a number of special-favor provisions that haven’t received sufficient public scrutiny or submit to a government shutdown.
The Washington Post described it aptly in an editorial, calling the Cromnibus “a last-minute, must-pass caricature of the deliberative process by which Congress is supposed to approve appropriations.”
The Cromnibus — a name that reflects the short-term funding measures called “continuing resolutions” that have recently taken the place of “omnibus” budget bills — is an amalgamation of how the budget process should have unfolded in the nation’s capitol and what goes wrong when it doesn’t. It represents why the federal government must — as incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says — return to regular order.
In the “regular” world, the House and Senate Appropriations committees pass spending bills for each area of the federal budget and refer them to the full chambers for votes. The House and Senate then reconcile the differences between their budget bills before taking final votes and passing them onto the White House for the president’s approval.
But that “regular” budget process — which includes vetting of each budget bill by the relevant subcommittee and public hearings — hasn’t happened since 2005. The Cromnibus — with last-minute, anonymous provisions such as one that raises limits on the amount of money individual donors can contribute to party-controlled campaign committees — is what happens when normal, deliberate budgeting doesn’t.
In the Democratically controlled Senate this year, only a part of the budget process unfolded: The Appropriations Committee passed eight spending bills — out of the 12 budget areas — but none came to the Senate floor for a vote, according to Sen. Susan Collins’ office. Only one of those spending bills — the bill funding transportation, housing and urban development and related programs — was even the subject of a Senate floor debate.
It was those individual spending bills that contained some of the provisions championed by Collins, such as a partial rollback of rest rules for commercial truckers and the temporary insertion of the white potato into the federal WIC nutrition assistance program for low-income pregnant women and mothers. The provisions are controversial, but they at least were subject to deliberation and Senate committee votes — unlike the last-minute campaign contribution provision and others in the Cromnibus.
The Republican-controlled House passed seven of 12 budget bills this year, but those votes went nowhere with no parallel action in the Senate.
Congress passed a low bar at the last minute this month by passing a budget bill that will, presumably, prevent a worse alternative: the complete shutdown of the federal government. Some on Capitol Hill are celebrating the Cromnibus as “a monumental achievement” that shows how a dysfunctional Congress can actually work together. By no standard is the budget bill an example of good governance, and the indefensible process that led to it should not be repeated.