The so-called Cromnibus is an ugly piece of work. On balance, I’m glad — no, make that relieved — it passed the House.
The Cromnibus is the giant $1.1 trillion spending bill that will keep the government functioning — no, make that open — through the end of the fiscal year in September.
The nickname stems from its dual function as “continuing resolution” and “omnibus” spending bill, but I like the term for its echoes of cronut, the calorie-laden combination of croissant and doughnut. Like the cronut, the Cromnibus is stuffed with some things that aren’t necessarily good for you.
Such as a toxic change in the campaign finance laws that helps usher back the bad old days of multimillion-dollar “soft money” donations to national political parties from wealthy individuals.
Without notice, without the legislative fig leaf of debate, the Cromnibus raised the limit tenfold for individual donations to the national party committees.
With the change, an individual could contribute $1.5 million during a two-year election cycle. A married couple — call them Mr. and Mrs. Plutocrat — could contribute $3 million. That’s enough money to get the Republicans’, or Democrats’, attention. This is bipartisanship in the service of self-interest.
There is a reasonable argument against tight caps on giving to political parties in the aftermath of the Citizens United decision and other developments that enhanced the power of super PACs and even less-transparent outside groups. With the cacophony of outside voices, the parties lose control of their message and their candidates, and the voters lose the ability to know what interests are financing the elections. The playing field could use some leveling.
Yes, but there remains a difference between the corrupting influence of money that flows straight to political parties and money that goes to outside groups. There was a reason Congress, just a dozen years ago, banned unlimited soft money donations from wealthy individuals, corporations and labor unions.
With this move, what comes next? And by what undemocratic, last-minute sleight of hand?
A similar case could be made against the stealth dismantling of part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, passed in the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse. As the White House said in not threatening to veto the spending bill, the Citigroup-authored change would “weaken a critical component of financial system reform aimed at reducing taxpayer risk.”
That provision, known as Section 716, required banks and other institutions to move certain risky financial instruments into separate entities in order to limit the exposure of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and Federal Reserve — i.e., taxpayers — from having to bail the financial institutions out if the deals should go south. Banks remained able to trade in nearly all derivatives, just not the more exotic ones.
Again, there are some reasonable arguments for undoing the remaining restriction. The change doesn’t unravel Dodd-Frank’s regulation of derivative instruments. Section 716 was controversial from the start, with some bank regulators arguing it would increase systemic risk, not reduce it. The impact of the change is debatable; after all, according to FDIC Vice Chairman Tom Hoenig, who opposes undoing the provision, it would not affect 95 percent of derivatives.
Of course, changes like these should be made in the ordinary course of legislative business, not stuffed into a Cromnibus. So why would I express relief about the Cromnibus’s passage?
Because, to some extent, my reference to the ordinary course of legislative business is civics textbook hooey. In practice, it has long been true that special-interest goodies are tucked into must-pass bills. Real-world legislating requires a horrific amount of nose-holding.
The reason is simple: The imperative for horse-trading and compromising is an immutable fact of political life. And so the question, for lawmakers and the Obama administration, is not whether the measure is perfect — it’s whether the trade-offs are acceptable. This is a judgment call; reasonable people, even reasonable Democrats, can differ.
In the case of the Cromnibus, the upside is a year of funding certainty and a better deal than could be extracted in the next Congress. Democrats avoid being blamed for causing a shutdown but, post-floor fight, reap the benefit of having fired a shot across the bow of Republicans and the White House as their caucus revolted.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had a legitimate point in contending that House Democrats were being “blackmailed” to vote for the spending bill. Still, there is something worse than legislative sausage-making in Washington. That is the inability to produce any sausage at all.