At 8 p.m. on Monday January 13, there was no $1.1 trillion spending bill for fiscal year 2014. At least not one that the public or the vast majority of lawmakers had seen.
Less than 70 hours later, large majorities in the House and Senate (332 to 94, and 72 to 26, respectively) had sent it to President Barack Obama to be signed into law. Even in Washington that much cash hasn’t moved that fast, well, ever.
To get it done, all 12 spending bills were jammed into a single omnibus appropriations bill. The last time all the spending bills moved in one massive package was 1987. It’s definitely better for government to have an actual spending bill than a continuing resolution that blanket extends old directives.
And the full appropriations legislation enabled Congress to exert its constitutionally mandated power of the purse and set spending priorities and direction. That’s a good thing, but what a cruddy process it was to get here.
The legislative text alone of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 was 1,582 pages. The joint explanatory statement explaining the funding was another 1,278 pages. Senators (and their staffs) would have had to read at a pace of a page every one minute, 27 seconds to get through the package before the vote (House members had a little more than a minute per page).
Every minute the documents were available before the Senate vote corresponded to $264 million in the spending bill.
We’ve been digging into the actual details of the spending bill and regularly posting our findings — such as the millions for a company about to file for bankruptcy, archaic development administrations getting extra cash, directives stopping the Navy from retiring ships, and slush-y funds for the Army Corps of Engineers.
In years past, the release of a massive omnibus spending bill would mean bleary-eyed Taxpayers for Common Sense staffers struggling in front of spreadsheets, databasing and researching thousands and thousands of earmarks on top of combing through the body of the bills, which is another improvement.
The earmark moratorium that was put into place in 2011 has made a difference. To be sure, there have been some earmark-ish and earmark-esque provisions, and lawmakers are touting funding they got for this or that pet project back home. Some of that boasting, however, turns out to be lawmakers crowing about funding that was already in Obama’s budget rather than congressionally directed earmarks.
For instance, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) put out a press release patting himself on the back for getting $404 million to construct the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas. He didn’t mention that it was actually far less than the $714 million Obama requested for the facility’s construction.
Also, the gotcha game of “is this an earmark?” misses some of the point. If the project or program is wasteful, it doesn’t really matter if it is an earmark or not. And even if an earmark, or two, or 12 slipped into this legislation, it’s nothing like the 9,493 earmarks worth $15.9 billion we found in the fiscal year 2010, the last year for earmarks.
Furthermore, the old abuses of earmarks will have a tougher time coming back because in this resource-constrained environment, making spending decisions on the basis of political muscle rather than project merit has real consequences. With a limited pot of money, if some special interest gets paid, it’ll be at the expense of other good projects. The nation can’t afford that.
Going forward, lawmakers have already agreed to the fiscal year 2015 spending level. Next up will be Obama’s budget request — likely to come out a month late at the end of February — followed by House and Senate decisions on how to divvy up the top line number.
As lawmakers exercise their cramped appropriating muscles this year, they need to find time to conduct rigorous oversight of current spending and establish clear prioritization systems to allocate new funds with transparent criteria and metrics.
Now that lawmakers have written and passed all twelve bills (albeit in an omnibus) for fiscal year 2014, maybe they can actually pass all the bills on time and individually for fiscal year 2015 — something that hasn’t happened in 20 years.
Time to get to work.