Flat Tires on the Omnibus

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Monday, March 9, 2009

THE CONGRESSIONAL budget process -- and process is an awfully polite word for the current chaos -- gets uglier and uglier. The $410 billion omnibus spending bill that is crawling to final passage and an unenthusiastic signature comes nearly halfway through the fiscal year. It covers spending for pretty much the entire domestic side of the government -- yet none of the nine bills merged into the single giant package were ever considered on the floor of the House or Senate. President Obama's not-my-problem stance may be canny politics: Why put any political capital into this one when there are so many other difficult fights to come? But his asserted stance that this is, in the words of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, "last year's business," borders on irresponsible. This may be last year's business, but Mr. Obama is this year's president.

The uproar over the omnibus has centered on earmarks or, as defenders would have it, congressionally directed spending to the tune of almost $8 billion. No doubt some of these projects are egregious, others worthy. Certainly, it's fair to question whether Mr. Obama, fresh from boasting that "we passed the recovery plan free of earmarks," has abdicated the bully pulpit when it comes to this measure. But the amount of earmarked funds in these measures is down this year.

More noteworthy is the significant jump in domestic spending that is built into the annual baseline. Critics of the spending package say that the increase is 8 percent over last year's levels; for complicated bookkeeping reasons, the number as scored by the Congressional Budget Office is closer to 6 percent. Either way, this jump raises both short- and long-term concerns. In the short term, can government agencies effectively spend this much more on top of the huge stimulus package just passed? Congressional appropriators say that they scoured the spending to make certain such problems would not arise; still, the overall increase in domestic spending is a staggering 80 percent, according to the Republican staff of the House Budget Committee.

In the longer term, this year's levels, as a practical matter, set the floor for future spending. The rise in spending reflects the pent-up demand of Democrats unable to get their budget priorities past a Republican Congress or signed by a Republican president. This category of spending has been squeezed; according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, discretionary spending outside of defense and homeland security has increased an average of just 1.3 percent annually, adjusting for inflation, since 2001. Nonetheless, increases of this size cannot continue; it's worrisome that the president's proposed budget for 2010 appears to envision another increase in excess of 6 percent in this category.

If the omnibus, in substance and process, is not an appetizing package, the alternative is worse. Allowing the rest of the fiscal year to limp forward on a continuing resolution at last year's levels, as Republicans have urged, would deny the needed flexibility to reallocate money among programs or ramp up for particular costs, such as conducting the census or improving food safety. The whole mess leaves us hoping, once again, that this year's budget business is conducted better -- not to mention this year.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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