I'll See Your "CR" and Raise You One "Omnibus"

In the topsy-turvy world that is Washington, D.C., these days, Congress is struggling to find a way to fulfill its primary function -- pass a budget.

The government is currently being funded by a “continuing resolution.” The current fiscal year – FY 2011 – actually began on October 1, 2010, right before Representatives and Senators went home to campaign. Yet Congress failed to enact any of the twelve separate appropriations bills which keep federal agencies running. Instead, they adopted a “continuing resolution” (CR) as an interim measure. What a CR does is provide funding for areas of the federal government whose specific appropriation has not yet been adopted before the new fiscal year begins – and this year that’s all of them – and funds them at the same level as they were for the previous fiscal year. So the government has been running on a series of short-term CRs, the latest of which expires on December 18.

But with members anxious to get out of town and leave the “lame duck” session of Congress far behind them, everyone’s looking for a way to get something more substantive done.

In the House, the Democratic leadership is pushing for a CR that takes the government all the way through FY 2011, expiring next September 30. Republican leaders, meanwhile are pushing for a shorter CR that would run through the first few months of 2011, when control of the House shifts to the new GOP majority. This would allow Republicans to write the spending bills when they take over. The House leadership hopes to vote on a long-term CR as early as today.

In the Senate, it’s a different story.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) has been preparing an “omnibus” spending bill. Rather than having both the House and Senate approve each of the twelve outstanding appropriations bills – for which there isn’t nearly enough time – Senator Inouye has bundled all the appropriations bills into a single funding package. “Omnibus” spending bills are not that uncommon, and often include large numbers of completely unrelated pieces of legislation which can be worth hundreds of billions – and in this case, trillions – of dollars.

The omnibus bill generally funds things at the levels of the Administration’s FY 2011 levels rather than the FY 2010 levels used in the CR. So it would provide more overall funding than the continuing resolution. Senator Inouye hopes to substitute his omnibus package for the House CR package when it comes to the Senate for consideration.

But whether the solution to the current budget dilemma is a CR or an omnibus, one thing is true – it’s a pretty poor way for Congress to be doing business. And it may well be an omen of what we can expect in the future in this polarized political environment.

Onmibus bills, because of their sheer size and the fact that they often receive only cursory examination by the committees which oversee them, are havens for pork barrel spending programs. There’s just not enough opportunity for oversight to know exactly what’s in them when the time comes for a vote.

And although CRs contain funding that usually has gone through the traditional annual budget cycle, it did so a year earlier. Thus many of the provisions included in the original legislation that provide guidance on how federal agencies should allocate these funds have been overtaken by events, or simply expired.

Taxpayers deserve better. Sadly, at this point, we’ll have to take whatever we can get.