by Lindsay Tausch
On Thursday, March 22, the House of Representatives passed a $1.3 trillion bipartisan spending bill that will fund the federal government until the end of fiscal year 2018, which runs from October 1, 2017 through September 30, 2018. The massive “omnibus” package combines several appropriations bills, which Congress would ordinarily pass individually in order to fund various federal departments and programs. The Senate voted to pass the bill shortly after the House did, The bill passed with relatively strong support from both parties, with a favorable vote of 256 to 167 in the House and 65 to 32 in the Senate.
The 2,232-page bill covers a wide range of spending areas. The bill allocates $655 billion to national defense, an 10% increase from the previous year’s defense budget. Much of fiscal year 2018 has already passed, making it challenging for the Pentagon to follow certain restrictions that are usually imposed on the defense budget. In response, the bill grants the Pentagon flexibility in its spending of the additional funds. The defense budget is a victory for President Trump, who requested a budget of $639 billion.
The bill allocates approximately $600 billion to domestic spending, a increase of about 10% from the 2017 budget for non-defense spending. Democrats and Republicans disagreed in particular about how the bill should handle gun control, immigration, and the potential Gateway program, which would improve the train system that connects New Jersey and New York. Both parties supported the allocation of additional funding to improve veterans’ hospitals and to tackle the opioid epidemic. However, some lawmakers objected to the bill in general, arguing that the bill allowed too much government funding given the size of the national debt, and that Congress passed the bill too quickly, making it difficult for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to fully understand the proposed budget.
The omnibus bill includes the bipartisan Fix NICS Act, intended to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Federally licensed gun sellers are required to check this system before selling anyone a firearm. The Act is a response to recent mass shootings in which individuals with unreported criminal convictions or mental health issues were able to legally obtain firearms. In addition to the Fix NICS Act, the omnibus bill contains another gun control victory for Democrats: a clarification to the Dickey Amendment. Language in the Dickey Amendment suggests that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) may not be allowed to research gun violence. The omnibus bill affirms that the CDC can research gun violence, despite the Amendment’s ambiguous language.
Immigration was another issue of party contention during the construction of the omnibus bill. In particular, the bill does not address the uncertain fate of DACA, a program established by the Obama administration to protect those who were brought to America illegally as children. Trump has expressed strong opposition to DACA, and during his campaign he promised to “immediately terminate” the program. Efforts to include a resolution to the DACA issue in the omnibus bill were unsuccessful. Republicans offered to temporarily extend the program in exchange for additional border security funding. Democrats were willing to accept the offer if Republicans agreed to a permanent rather than temporary extension to the program. No compromise was reached. Instead, the bill allocates $1.6 billion to border fencing, a major decrease from the $25 billion that Republicans requested. The bill also provides increases in funding for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agencies.
There is still uncertainty about whether or not the omnibus bill will fund the potential Gateway program. If funded, the Gateway program would provide infrastructure to improve public transportation between New Jersey and New York through improvements to the NJ TRANSIT and Amtrak rail systems. Amtrak officials released an estimate in 2016 that the entire project could cost $23.9 billion, though a new addition to the project could spike the cost to over $29 billion. Democrats strongly support Gateway and argue that the bill provides some funding that could be applied to part of the program. However, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has made clear that she does not plan to move forward with the program for now, and the bill does not reference it specifically.
In general, the omnibus bill has received bipartisan support. It includes bipartisan compromises and funding for issues that both parties back, such as veterans’ hospitals and programs to address opioid abuse. The bill provides $4.64 billion to support state efforts to address opioid addiction, an issue which has gained nationwide attention in recent years. The bill more than doubles the funding Congress provided for these efforts in 2017. An instance of bipartisan compromise in the bill is the agreement to fix the grain glitch, which unintentionally provided farm cooperatives with a tax advantage over other grain buyers. Democrats agreed to change the tax law that contained the grain glitch in exchange for legislation to provide a tax credit to people who live in low-income housing.
While most lawmakers from both parties have expressed their support for the omnibus bill, some object to the whopping $1.3 trillion price tag and to the somewhat frantic manner in which the bill passed. The U.S. has a national debt of $21 trillion, which continues to rise rapidly. In a press release expressing his opposition to the bill, Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) said, “This spending kegger is a wildly irresponsible use of the taxpayers’ money, and the president should not sign it.” Additionally, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have voiced concern that there was no time to fully review the bill before passing it. In a statement formally opposing the bill, the House Freedom Caucus wrote, “leadership is forcing a vote on this 2,232-page bill in under 36 hours, far from an adequate amount of time to read and analyze it.” Representative Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) echoed this concern from the other side of the aisle, saying, “In all honesty, none of us know what is actually in this bill” shortly before it passed.
Lindsay is a first-year student in the College studying economics.