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How to sound smart about the 2015 appropriations bill

Elizabeth Warren, left, talks with Barbara Mikulski. Mikulski negotiated the CRomnibus, which Warren now opposes.
Elizabeth Warren, left, talks with Barbara Mikulski. Mikulski negotiated the CRomnibus, which Warren now opposes.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

House and Senate negotiators have crafted a $1.013 trillion deal to fund most of the government through 2015 (well, with one exception). The bill, which weighs in at more than 1,600 pages (full text here), will avert a government shutdown. But it's also loaded down with non-funding "policy riders" — including one that has Sen. Elizabeth Warren very, very annoyed — and is the kind of giant, secretive, backroom deal that Republicans have railed against in recent years.

Here's what to say if you're asked about it.

The basic deal: Neither side wanted a shutdown. And so both sides held to the spending framework Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan worked out in December 2013. The $1.013 trillion bottom line was, in that sense, set over a year ago — which is why this deal was pretty easy for House and Senate negotiators to reach. In other words the actual spending is just about the least controversial thing in the spending bill.

The one catch is the Department of Homeland Security. Republicans, angry about President Obama's executive action on immigration, are only funding the Department of Homeland Security until February. That way the new Republican Congress can go to war with Obama over immigration, if they so choose. But conservatives are split on whether that move presages Republicans punishing Obama for his overreach or proves Republicans are capitulating to it.

marijuana

You're not going very far, little marijuana plant. (Shutterstock)

The smarter take: The biggest problem with this spending bill is all the stuff it does that has nothing to do with government spending. These are the "policy riders": little provisions tucked away in the bill that make sweeping policy changes in order to satisfy this or that congressional faction. One of those policy riders would loosen regulations on financial derivatives. Another would overturn Washington, DC's ballot initiative legalizing marijuana. A third would allow the Export-Import Bank to fund coal-fired power plants abroad. There's a provision that would allow political parties to raise 10 times more money from individuals. A fifth would give Blue Cross-Blue Shield a better deal under Obamacare.

Congress likes to brag about getting rid of earmarks, but these provisions are policy pork: they're giveaways to individual members of Congress or small factions meant to get the bill passed, but instead of giving away the money to build a bridge or a road or a community center, they give away new policy measures that could never pass if they weren't attached to this must-pass spending bill.

Why it's called "the CRomnibus": The bill is being referred to on the Hill as the "CRomnibus". That's because it's a mash-up of an omnibus bill, which is how Congress funds the government when things are working normally, and a continuing resolution (CR), which is how Congress funds the government when it can't come to a deal. In this case, the CR only affects the Department of Homeland Security, which, as mentioned before, will see its funding expire in February.

What budget wonks are mad about: While congressional Democrats and Republicans both agree the CRomnibus abides by the preexisting spending caps, budget analysts disagree. Maya McGuinness, head of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, writes:

While it complies with discretionary spending limits on paper, it relies on several budgetary gimmicks to mask spending in excess of those limits. These include nearly $20 billion in phantom "savings" from CHIMPs (changes in mandatory programs) that are scored as savings on paper but produce none in reality, a shift of several billion from the base defense budget into the uncapped war budget, and at least $3 billion of hidden tax cuts and mandatory spending increases that are not offset,with the revenue losses explicitly exempt from PAYGO.

Much more on the bill's gimmicks here.

elizabeth warren

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Why Elizabeth Warren is so angry: One of the policy riders repeals Section 716 of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, which blocks FDIC-insured institutions from trading custom swaps (Matt Yglesias has a good explanation of the issue here). The rider has Warren fuming. "If big companies can deploy their armies of lawyers and lobbyists to get the Congress to vote for special deals that will benefit themselves, then we will simply confirm the view of the American people that the system is rigged," she said on the Senate floor. She's arguing Democrats shouldn't vote for the CRomnibus unless the language is deleted.

Why Senate Democrats will probably pass it anyway. Democrats see this as the best deal they're likely to get for 2015. They could detonate the negotiations... but that would potentially lead to a government shutdown. But perhaps that's a fight they could win, if they argue that it's corrupt for Republicans to shut down the government over a sweetheart deal for Wall Street.

But the bigger problem for Democrats is that the likely outcome of a "victory" is that Congress simply gives up and passes a short-term funding extension that makes 2015's funding the next Congress's problem. And the next Congress is going to be overwhelmingly Republican. So Democrats figure that if they don't agree to this package now they're likely to get something much worse later.

Why some conservatives hate the bill: Heritage Action is trying to persuade House Republicans to vote against the CRomnibus for a few reasons. The big one is that they want a real showdown, right now, over Obama's immigration action — they don't buy the idea that letting DHS funding expire in February is an acceptable substitute. Here's their case:

Some have suggested the short-term funding for DHS will provide conservatives another opportunity to block President Obama’s actions in early 2015, but that approach is problematic because: 1) it forces House Republicans, who are virtually unanimous in their opposition to the President’s actions, to cast an initial vote to fund that lawless action; 2) it would occur 100 days after the President’s announcement, meaning the program is likely to be up and running; 3) it removes nearly all the pressure on President Obama and his partisan allies to choose between defending their lawless amnesty policies and funding all other areas of government; and 4) leading Republicans have refused to offer up a viable plan to stop the President’s executive amnesty in February.

They also have problems with various accounting gimmicks in the bill, spending levels for certain agencies, and policy riders that didn't get included. They lament, for instance, that "riders blocking certain National Science Foundation climate research, prohibiting trade agreements regarding greenhouse gases, certain pro-gun riders and six riders on the aforementioned CFTC and SEC were all left behind in favor of liberal priorities."

Heritage Action also notes that the process that led to the bill is pretty hypocritical. "Representatives are being asked to vote on the massive, 1,603-page bill with little time to read and understand it," they write — exactly the thing that Republicans have been complaining about Democrats doing for years.

Why Republicans will probably pass it anyway: The spending bill does see a lot of Republican priorities through. The IRS, for instance, gets its funding slashed. The CRomnibus funds the Pentagon and avoids some deep, automatic cuts that might be triggered in the absence of a deal. And it meets the caps that Ryan negotiated in December 2013. For a good rundown of the Republican case for the law, read the release put out by Rep. Hal Rogers, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

But behind the policy is a political imperative. Republicans really, really don't want a shutdown. They just won an election. They don't want to destroy the momentum of the GOP Congress before it's begun. You can see this in Rogers' statement. The headline is "Omnibus Package Responsibly Funds the Federal Government, Avoids a Shutdown, Makes Good-Government Policy Changes". Avoiding a shutdown is so central to the thinking of Republican negotiators right now that they brag about it as one of the bill's headline accomplishments.

Finally, Republicans know they're going to get another shot at this next year, when a Republican Senate and a Republican House get to write the spending bill for 2016.

The bottom line: What the CRomnibus shows is how different the politics of federal spending are in 2014 than they were in 2013, or 2012. There's not much more agreement on the big questions now than there was then, but there's a lot less appetite for a high-stakes showdown. This bill, with all its policy pork and its weird compromises and the resigned response to its unveiling, is evidence that Washington is returning to normal. It's not a good normal, per se, but it's a less dangerous one.

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