The Skinny on that Thick Omnibus Spending Bill

  President Trump signed a $1 trillion omnibus spending bill Congress passed to avert a federal government shutdown last Friday, even though he was upset it failed to include money for his long-promised border wall.

 President Trump signed a $1 trillion omnibus spending bill Congress passed to avert a federal government shutdown last Friday, even though he was upset it failed to include money for his long-promised border wall.

Congress averted a federal government shutdown last week by approving an omnibus $1.07 trillion appropriation for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2017, but many of its details were buried by news coverage of the high-profile House vote on its measure to replace Obamacare.

Perhaps the most notable detail is that the omnibus bill covered spending in 11 unfinished federal appropriation measures and provides fresh spending instructions for nearly every corner of the federal government.

What captured headlines was the absence of Trump administration priorities such as money to begin construction of his much ballyhooed border wall and deep cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institutes of Health and State Department. The price congressional Republicans paid to get Democratic votes for the omnibus spending bill was to ax Trump’s priorities.

Democratic leaders touted the agreement as a victory, claiming they blocked 160 “poison pill” Republican policy riders and stymied many of Trump’s priorities, especially the border wall. Republicans hailed the increases in defense spending and border security as highlights of the package. One DC cynic said happiest people with the omnibus bill were federal workers who were able to stay on the job.

The mammoth measure contains many significant spending decisions. Here are some highlights of the bill:

  • Appropriators flatly rejected $18 billion in cuts to domestic discretionary programs proposed by the Administration but does provide an extra $15 billion for defense spending – half of what Trump requested. 
  • The deal includes an extra $1.5 billion to enhance border security, but there is no money to begin construction of Trump's wall along the Mexican border.
  • Increased funding for the National Institutes of Health by $2 billion, a 6.2 percent increase from current levels.
  • A permanent fix for a depleted health fund needed by thousands of retired coal miners.
  • Puerto Rico’s troubled Medicaid program shored up with an extra $295 million.
  • $2 billion in disaster relief for California, West Virginia, Louisiana and North Carolina.
  • An extra $407 million to combat wildfires.
  • $100 million to combat opioid abuse.
  • Federal funding for Planned Parenthood was preserved.
  • $68 million to reimburse local law enforcement agencies for the costs of protecting Trump and his family, predominantly in Manhattan.

In his signing statement, Trump highlighted additional items of which he disapproved, such as restricting the transfer of prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, preventing enforcement of federal marijuana laws and requiring advance notice to Congress before he can take certain military actions. 

The omnibus spending bill could easily be portrayed as a loss for Trump, which may have contributed to the decision of House GOP leaders to press forward on a vote on their health care legislation, despite a lack of hearings or scoring by the Congressional Budget Office. Trump and GOP House members took what the media called a “victory lap” at the White House immediately after the narrow vote to approve the measure, which now moves to the Senate and an uncertain fate.

Also looming on the horizon is a vote to raise the debt ceiling and decisions on the Fiscal Year 2018 budget. FY 2018 begins October 1, which gives lawmakers just 4 1/2  months to wrestle with many of the same issues that stalled approval on the FY 2017 spending bill.

Leaders of both parties have pledged to get the appropriations process back to order in FY18, but the prospects of that are unlikely at best. Trump has yet to submit a full FY18 budget request, and it will be difficult to begin drafting spending bills until Congress agrees on a top-line spending limit for both defense and nondefense spending.

A 2011 deficit-cutting law requires limiting spending to $1.065 trillion, or $5 billion less than this year’s authorized limit. Exceeding that amount would require another bipartisan budget deal to set a higher limit – as Congress has done twice over the last four years, but no such talks have begun.

To make matters more difficult, Congress will have to tackle three important programs set to expire at the end of September: FAA law, federal flood insurance and a children's health insurance initiative. Congress may have to adopt short-term fixes to keep all three running. A number of smaller provisions are set to expire, too, including Coast Guard laws and some Medicare and FDA programs.

And then there is out-of-left-field tweet by Trump about a “good shutdown” this fall, which was mostly likely aimed at Democrats, but may only serve to stiffen their resolve in blocking his spending wishes.

The bottom line: Look for another short-term continuing resolution to keep the government open past September and into the new fiscal year.