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Wonkology: Omnibus Appropriations

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January 10, 2014


What is it?

Omnibus appropriations, sometimes referred to as consolidated appropriations, is a process by which Congress appropriates funding for multiple parts of the federal government in a single bill.

What's supposed to happen?

Congress has a methodical process, called regular order, for budgeting and appropriating federal funds. First, Congress passes a budget, and the appropriations subcommittees receive 302(b) allocations that establish caps for each of their respective bills. Second, the subcommittees, then the full Appropriations Committees, and eventually the entire Congress determine how exactly to allocate funds in 12 separate appropriations bills. If all goes according to plan, Congress completes the budget and appropriations process by October 1, the first day of the federal fiscal year; otherwise, unfunded portions of the government cannot continue to operate.

What really happens?

Regular order for budget and appropriations has become less common. As result, Congress has relied instead on omnibus appropriations, among other measures, to fund the government when passage of 12 appropriations bills becomes logistically impossible. Between 1986 and 2013, more than 42 percent of appropriations bills enacted into law were omnibus appropriations.

According to the budget agreement reached in December, spending for federal fiscal year 2014 has been capped at $1.012 trillion. The Senate and House Appropriations Committees must work expeditiously to negotiate any disagreements in spending for the remaining months of the current federal fiscal year by January 15. Thus, the work that Congress should do deliberately over many months in 12 separate appropriations bills has been compressed into the weeks between the December budget agreement and January 15, much of which fell while Congress was in recess for the holidays.

Why is this important?

Although the budget agreement was a step towards bipartisanship, consideration of an omnibus appropriations bill may cause a reemergence of political tension between the parties. Any bill funding the entire government would naturally have to include funding for Obamacare, the point of contention that led to the October 2013 government shutdown. The budget agreement also established budgetary levels for federal fiscal year 2015 at $1.014 trillion (commencing October 1, 2014), so Congress technically has plenty of time to return to regular order to pass the 12 appropriations bills for next year. But lest we forget, 2014 is an election year, so sunny optimism for continued bipartisanship may be short-lived.