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All aboard the omnibus

An explainer on how the government budgets and spends taxpayer money

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaking with a reporter after a resolution failed on Tuesday, Sept. 19 Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

All aboard the omnibus

By the close of the federal government’s fiscal year on the last day of September, the appropriations Congress approved last year will come to an end. That means that on the morning of Sunday, Oct. 1, the U.S. Treasury will hold a blank roadmap of what dollars need to go where. So, while the country has a budget—and the funding to put it into action—it can’t spend the money without Congress’ approval, leading to a partial government shutdown.

But didn’t Congress just raise the debt ceiling? And if there’s a budget, why is there any doubt about what the country needs to spend?

The federal government relies on a complex set of approvals to make expenditures. An interruption to any one part can delay the other components of the process, and lawmakers often leverage certain steps to achieve policy goals.

What is the debt ceiling?
The United States, by law, cannot borrow more than a set amount. When the country pushes up against that number, Congress may pass a law to raise the amount or, as is the case now, suspend the limit altogether. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., recently negotiated a deal with the Biden administration to suspend the debt ceiling through 2025.

The debt limit tells the government how much it can borrow. It does not inform the substance of the country’s expenditures—similar to how a credit limit is distinct from individual purchases.

What is the federal budget?
The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 requires the president to submit an annual spending plan, which he does on the first Monday in February. The Office of Management and Budget helps lay out the nation’s projected expenditures for the following fiscal year. On its own, the budget isn’t a law. It gives Congress recommendations for spending based on the president’s priorities.

What are congressional appropriations?
The House of Representatives has “the power of the purse,” as laid out in Article I of the Constitution. Any bill that proposes new spending or that raises taxes must originate in the lower chamber of Congress. On occasion, Congress will authorize emergency spending that falls outside of these bills.

Generally, the United States passes all its appropriations in 12 separate bills, divided up by category. Both the House and the Senate have special appropriations subcommittees that correspond to each category, including: аgriculture; commerce, justice, and science; defense; energy and water; financial services and general government; homeland security; interior and environment; labor, health and human services, education; the legislative branch; military construction and veterans affairs; state and foreign operations; and transportation, housing and urban Development.

The separation of the bills allows for individual evaluation in committee. There, lawmakers can offer changes and recommendations before the bills head to the floor for a vote. The process involves research, opinions, objections, and negotiations that often form their outcome.

What is an omnibus bill?
Since the 1970s, the federal government has circumvented the traditional funding process by lumping all its spending needs into one massive package usually referred to as an “omnibus” bill. The term sometimes also applies to large legislative packages.

Why does Congress use omnibus bills?
The contents of an omnibus bill mirror the 12 appropriations bills. Lumping them in a single piece of legislation gives House leadership increased control over the process.

The omnibus bill typically only goes through the Rules Committee—a group controlled by the majority party’s leadership. The speaker of the House often works to make sure their most loyal allies are assigned to this committee. The group decides when a bill comes to the floor, the parameters for its debate, and whether it may be amended.

The Rules Committee can facilitate quick passage of a bill by restricting access to the draft and then shuttling it to the floor for a vote. With less time for objections, members of Congress will usually vote however their party leadership dictates.

Every House speaker in the past decade—from Republicans John Boehner and Paul Ryan to Democrat Nancy Pelosi—used omnibus bills to circumvent the regular appropriations process.

Critics of this tactic say it limits the ability of individual House members to shape the outcome. Its fiercest opposition comes from the Freedom Caucus, the most conservative flank of the House GOP. The group has made an opposition to the omnibus bill a central fixture of its platform.

What are government authorization acts?
Some appropriations bills include specific instructions on when, how, and in what quantity government funds should be spent, while others designate large lump sums for agencies to manage. In those cases, Congress may follow up with an additional authorization act such as the Federal Aviation Reauthorization Act or the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Authorization acts lay out where the funds will end up and grant power for an agency to use them. Because of the distinction, authorization acts can originate in either chamber of Congress.

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD politics reporter based in Washington, D.C. He’s a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and has a degree in political journalism from Patrick Henry College.


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