WASHINGTON – Ronald Reagan, in his 1988 State of the Union address to Congress, hefted a 1,000-page, 14-pound spending bill and warned lawmakers against sending him more "behemoths" like this. "And if you do, I will not sign it."
Last Saturday, Congress passed a spending bill of more than 3,000 pages — what Sen. Robert Byrd (search), D-W.Va., called a "monstrosity" — to fund most federal programs in 2005. President Bush will sign it into law next month, but only after Congress returns to pass a separate bill to nullify a single sentence, discovered on page 1,112 of the spending measure, that could have jeopardized taxpayer privacy rights.
Reagan, in his speech, said the budget process had broken down and "needs a drastic overhaul." If anything, the process is even more broken today, with Congress inured to voting on huge, largely unread, spending legislation long after the budget year begins on Oct. 1.
"Ineptitude, irresponsibility, lack of leadership: All those words come to mind" in describing how Congress carries out its prime constitutional duty of controlling the public pursestrings, said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste (search).
Congress is supposed to pass 13 appropriations bills every year covering defense, education, health, foreign aid and every other aspect of federal spending, excluding entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
But it rarely meets the Oct. 1 deadline, and in six of the past seven years has had to resort to huge "omnibus" bills that throw all the unfinished bills, as well as some totally unrelated measures, into one package.
This year the $388 billion omnibus for 2005 combined nine of the 13, just about everything except defense, homeland security and a tiny District of Columbia bill.
The 2004 budget wasn't concluded until last January, with a seven-bill, $373 billion package, and the 2003 budget in February with an 11-bill, $397 billion package.
"It is a terrible way to do business," said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who is stepping down as Senate Appropriations Committee chairman.
"I am sick of this process," added his Democratic counterpart, Byrd. "I do not know if there will ever be a better example of what can happen, what can go wrong with this nefarious process of putting off legislation."
The flaws in the system were exemplified last weekend when Democrats discovered a single sentence in the bill giving Appropriations chairmen and their agents access to income tax returns. Lawmakers from both parties were outraged by this potential invasion of privacy, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi demanded that House members return Dec. 6 to vote on a resolution, already approved by the Senate, making the provision ineffective. Only then will the spending bill be sent to the president.
She said the "assault on taxpayer privacy" was a result of GOP leaders rushing gargantuan bills to a vote before members have a chance to study them.
Another pitfall of omnibus legislation, Schatz said, is that it can't be amended once the bill emerges from House-Senate negotiations. Members can't do anything — other than vote against the entire bill — about pet projects or other measures that get attached or dropped in the waning hours of a congressional session, he said.
Byrd noted that a 64-page small business bill somehow made its way into the package the night before it reached the House and Senate floors.
Sen. John McCain (search), R-Ariz., a strong critic of the system, listed dozens of member projects buried in the package, from $515,000 for snake control in Guam to $1 million for the Norwegian American Foundation, to $350,000 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. "Being a fan of rock and roll myself, I guess that is well justified," he said.
The House this year passed 12 of the 13 spending bills, but only two were debated on the floor of the Senate, where the minority has more power to offer amendments and slow down the process. The Senate and the more conservative House also have trouble agreeing on spending levels.
Difficulties in passing the budget on time are nothing new, Senate historian Donald Ritchie said. He recalled a 19th century Senate doorkeeper whose job on the deadline day was to push the hand of the Senate clock back with a broom handle to give lawmakers a few more hours.
The most dramatic showdown in recent years came in 1995 and 1996 when the Newt Gingrich-led House Republicans refused to accept the Clinton administration's five-bill omnibus, forcing a 26-day shutdown of some government services.
"The woolly mammoth became extinct ages ago," Byrd said. "I hope one day the same will be said for such mammoth appropriations bills."