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What's an Omnibus? And When is it a Christmas Tree?

by Countable | 5.2.17

Congress has agreed on a spending bill to fund the federal government through the end of the fiscal year, September 30. The bill should come up for an approval vote in both Houses sometime this week, well before the May 5 government shutdown deadline that was instituted in a continuing resolution last week.

The bill is not yet publicly available, but it is likely to be massive, even without some of the additions, like funding for the president’s border wall or the defunding of Planned Parenthood, that have recently spurned so much controversy. Massive spending bills that combine many different pieces of legislation are called omnibus bills. They can focus on specific aspects of government, like the Farm Bill, or they can focus on funding for the entirety of government, like this week’s bill.

The annual budget process often involves omnibus bills. Technically, the funding of the budget involved the passage of twelve bills. The twelve bills are associated with the twelve subcommittees of the U. S. House Committee on Appropriations and the matching twelve committees under the United States Senate Committee on Appropriations. The twelve committees are:

  • Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies

  • Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies

  • Defense

  • Energy and Water Development

  • Financial Services and General Government

  • Homeland Security

  • Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies

  • Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies

  • Legislative Branch

  • Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies

  • State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs

  • Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies

Congress can opt to combine all the bills into one massive omnibus legislation, or group them into smaller combined bills. These are called "minibuses".

There are positives and negatives to omnibus legislation. Rather than having to debate and vote on every single bill, by combining them Congress can push for a single vote in each House. This is more efficient. It also allows both chambers to focus on the bigger negotiation picture; everyone is getting something they want and everyone is giving up something as well. It is the epitome of bi-partisan compromise.

It is also an easy way for members of Congress to hide unrelated amendments that benefit specific constituencies or special interest groups, what are historically referred to as "pork". Especially when there is a funding deadline looming, who is going to read all the fine print of a bill that could be well over 1000 pages long? Theoretically, that’s the job of congress members and their staff, but the reality is that job is not always done well.

Because of this tendency for omnibus bills to become a catch-all for congressional members pet projects and causes they are sometimes referred to as "Christmas Tree Bills". The origin of the term is undecided, but as former New Mexico Democratic Senator Clinton P. Anderson commented about a 1956 Farm Bill, “This bill gets more and more like a Christmas tree; there's something on it for nearly everyone."

The other use of omnibus legislation is the potential protection it offers from presidential veto. If the president is also getting some legislation included that he or she wants, despite other inclusions or omissions that counter his or her agenda, then an approval signature is much more likely.

The current omnibus bill that will be voted on and, if passed, move to the president’s desk for signature this week may be missing some key elements that Republicans and the president were hoping for. It may also be less sparsely decorated than some "Christmas Tree Bills" of the past, given concerns about spending and “poison pill riders”, but we won’t know for sure until the legislation is publicly available.

You can count on Countable to keep you informed.

What do you hope the omnibus spending bill Congress will be voting on this week includes or doesn’t include? Use the Take Action button to let your reps know what you think!

— Asha Sanaker

(Photo Credit: Pixabay / Creative Commons)

Countable

Written by Countable

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(11)
  • Ticktock
    05/02/2017
    ···

    I don't believe that this bill should come up for a vote until it is released for public viewing and comment. The more eyes inspecting this bill the better able to eliminate pork or poison pills. The last few months has seen so much controversy on both sides of the isle that surprises would be very unwelcome.

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  • DannybAZ
    05/02/2017
    ···

    Pass a clean budget bill! No funding for the ridiculously expensive outrageously ineffective Great Wall, no AHCA, no defunding Planned Parenthood and no cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.

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  • Brian
    05/02/2017
    ···

    I believe any legislation that has such sweeping implications as this one does should be available to the public before being voted upon. It is the right of the people to be able to review and comment to their representatives on any bill that will affect their way of life. If it is voted on before we can read it, how will we know how to tell our reps to vote? And if our reps vote on it before we know the content, how can we be sure they are acting in our best interests?

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  • Connie
    05/02/2017
    ···

    This is the very reason why you choose your congressman wisely. This is their job to get this right and fight for the issues that matter to their constituents and the country. Right now there are too many members of congress that are not representing their constituents and are busy drafting legislation to try and limit our rights and democracy. 2018 can't come soon enough!

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  • Cecelia
    05/03/2017
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    Keep funding for ACA, Planned Parenthood, EPA, Arts funding and essential sevices.

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  • Kathryn
    05/02/2017
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    No wall!!!!

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  • Stephanie
    05/02/2017
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    While it all appears to go in a positive direction, the devil is in the details. Release it to the public before a vote.

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  • John
    07/24/2017
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    Get Public Opinion for each and decide on them separately.

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  • danielmcross
    05/03/2017
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    I am sick and tired of Congress being unable to do its actual job. Spending is their responsibility and for years and years Congress has failed and had to rely on CRs and other measures to kick the can down the road. It's not like citizens have the option to not pay taxes if we haven't made a budget. Get it together, Congress, because you pretty much have one job and you're BLOWING IT!

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  • Ty
    05/02/2017
    ···

    Useless

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  • Debra
    05/02/2017
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    We need to see the bill before it goes to the President!

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