Commentary by James Shott
Last Friday Congress passed the omnibus spending bill, avoiding a government shutdown when current funding expired at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 23. At 2,009 pages it spent a dazzling $1.149 trillion, and like most legislation it had some good features and some less-than-desirable features.
It was described as far-reaching legislation funding the government until next October, passing tax breaks for businesses and low-income families, reauthorizing programs to compensate and provide health care for first responders and survivors of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and a cybersecurity measure that could help businesses cooperate more closely with the government and each other in fighting online threats.
The bill easily cleared both chambers, first in the House, which passed it 316-113, followed by the Senate in a 65-33 vote. President Barack Obama signed the measure.
Republicans, who hold majorities in both houses – 54 percent in the House and nearly 57 percent in the Senate – supported the bill by a significant majority in the House, but in in the Senate only about one-third voted for the bill.
Despite the Republican majority in both houses, the GOP managed only a few real victories, while the minority party won big, according to most analyses.
Republicans gained the lifting of a 40-year ban on oil exports, prohibiting funding to bail out the insurance companies in the Obamacare health insurance program, and preventing the IRS from regulating political speech.
However, they were unable to restrict the Syrian refugee program, end funding for Obama’s executive actions on immigration, defund Planned Parenthood, defund sanctuary cities, or restrain EPA over-regulation of ponds and streams, and coal-burning power plants.
Perhaps the most noteworthy provision in the bill is the one that could allow more than a quarter-million temporary guest workers into the country, an increase from the previous federal cap of 66,000 on H-2B visas for low-skilled foreign workers seeking blue-collar jobs in the U.S. This is a significant change to immigration law, and it has conservatives dismayed. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told The Daily Signal, “It came out of nowhere, completely out of nowhere,” the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus said, “[and] everyone was shocked there was a change and no one had talked about it.”
Conservatives are displeased that the Republicans were unable to remove so many troublesome provisions that they should strongly oppose, and also with the very process that created the bill and brought it to a vote.
Critics of the bill and its passage complained that the rank-and-file members of the House were not included in negotiations. Congressional leaders assembled the bill in smoke-filled back rooms and did not release the text of the 2,009-page bill until 2 a.m. last Wednesday, and the separate 233-page tax-extenders bill was released just before midnight.
Prior to the vote Heritage Action for America chief executive Michael A. Needham said the package represents the most sweeping changes to tax policy since 2012. “In fewer than 48 hours, lawmakers will likely be asked to vote on two massive bills that were negotiated behind closed doors over the past several weeks,” he said.
After the vote Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky explained his “no” vote to a New York radio station: “It was over a trillion dollars, it was all lumped together, 2,242 pages, nobody read it, so frankly my biggest complaint is that I have no idea what kind of things they stuck in the bill.” “I voted against it because I won’t vote for these enormous bills that no one has a chance to read,” Paul continued. “[T]his is not a way to run government. It’s a part of the reason why government is broke." And broken, he might have added.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who voted against the spending bill, said Republicans voted for the bill in part to support House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-WI, who had just taken that position and they were hopeful he would be more inclusive with rank and file members than his predecessor, former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
“There were a lot of people who didn’t want to vote for this, but they were giving him a vote out of good faith,” he said. At the same time, many also were worried that Ryan had given Democrats too many policy concessions in the bill, a feeling now confirmed. “The Democrats unfortunately just learned that they can mistreat him like they mistreated Boehner, which is a really bad thing,” Labrador said.
What the Framers designed as an efficient and transparent system of lawmaking now operates in the gutter. These days, bills often reflect dishonorable characteristics like this bill had:
• Created in secrecy
• Hundreds or thousands of pages long
• Voted on without time to be properly considered
• Amendments not permitted
• Contain elements unrelated to the purpose of the bill
• Are approved for political expediency, rather than by broad support
Too many bills are designed not to produce needed and broadly supported laws, but to enact politically useful and narrowly focused measures that benefit some at the expense of the others.
This process is yet one more sign of the devolving nature of our country. If America is to survive, good government must be restored.
Cross-posted from Observations