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Tue January 14, 2014
It's All Politics

5 Takeaways From The Omnibus Spending Bill

Regular order. That phrase refers to Congress conducting business in a methodical way, like it used to back before "dysfunctional" came to seem an official and permanent part of Congress' name.

When the House and Senate appropriations committee chairs announced late Monday evening that they had agreed on how to allocate the $1.012 trillion in federal spending, it was yet another step on the path to regular order that Congress forced itself to return to after years of regular disorder, best symbolized by last year's partial government shutdown.

Another step came Tuesday when the GOP-controlled House approved a three-day funding extension to avoid another shutdown while Congress hashes out the final details of the omnibus appropriations bill (the federal government's current funding expires Wednesday). Regular order lives.

Besides providing abundant evidence that members of Congress, especially House Republicans, have little interest in more shutdowns, there are other things to note about the omnibus spending bill, which could become law by week's end.

The sequester takes a hit
Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle detest the automatic, across-the-board cuts that were meant to be so horrible that Congress would never let them happen. Only it did when it couldn't get its act together last year. So one of the spending bill's main purposes was to unwind many of those cuts. Democrats pushed for an increase in Head Start funding, which was boosted by $1.025 billion to $8.6 billion. That not only restored sequester cuts but added a 1.3 percent cost-of-living-adjustment for providers to help them add back positions cut under the sequester.

Meanwhile, Republicans (and Democrats with defense jobs in their districts) got some sequester-impacted defense spending reversed. Military ships and aircraft at risk from budget cuts gained new life as a result of the spending agreement. The omnibus bill is also proof that good old-fashioned congressional horse-trading is alive and well.

The Affordable Care Act gets hit, too
The ill-fated government shutdown was initially and largely all about defunding or repealing the health care law. That didn't happen last year, of course. It also didn't happen in the omnibus. The health law's funding level largely remains at the 2013 level — but it didn't go totally unscathed. The legislation cuts funding from the law's Prevention and Public Health Fund, which is aimed at improving health outcomes, among other things.

Controversial measures mostly get sidelined
With a vehicle like the omnibus to work with, the usual temptations were there to use the legislation to make policy in controversial areas like abortion and the environment. But the committee chairs who shepherded the legislation managed to prevent many such measures from being added to the bill and raising the difficulty factor for its passage. Thus, while the bill still bans federal spending for most abortions, anti-abortion activists were unable to add any new prohibitions.

Benghazi and the Internal Revenue Service scandals get a cameo
Given all the attention in Congress last year on the 2012 terrorist attack on a U.S. facility in Libya and the 2013 revelations of the IRS' controversial scrutiny of Tea Party and other political groups, it's not surprising those issues forced their way into the omnibus. The spending bill would hold back some foreign aid to the Libyan government until it helps bring to justice the perpetrators of the attacks that killed four Americans. Meanwhile, the omnibus specifically orders the IRS to use no funds to "target citizens of the United States for exercising any right guaranteed under the First Amendment."

Environmentalists win some and lose some
Environmentalists successfully fended off Republican attempts to reduce funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and thwart the agency's efforts at regulating greenhouse gases. But environmentalists lost the lightbulb war. The omnibus would stop energy efficiency regulations imposed during George W. Bush's administration and continued under President Obama that would have phased out incandescent lightbulbs in favor of greener lighting. The spending legislation would also stop funding for a high-speed rail project in California supported by the president.

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