Normally, each year Congress should pass and the President should sign about 12 appropriation bills, which provide money for government operations. (For our summary of the budget process, click here.) An omnibus bill takes a number of different appropriation bills and includes them in a super-bill. There can be as many as 12 or as few as 2 bills combined to form a single omnibus. Congress began turning to omnibus bills in the late 1970s. Since fiscal year 1986, there have been only 10 years where Congress has not used any, and 15 years in which it passed at least one.
Omnibus appropriation bills are used for a couple different reasons. As time runs out, such bills are logical choices to complete business as soon as possible. For instance, President Bill Clinton signed an omnibus bill on September 30, 1996, the day before fiscal year 1997 was to start. Others are passed after the fiscal year starts, such as the one for fiscal year 1988, which was signed on December 22, 1987—Merry Christmas, everybody!
In addition to efficiency, omnibus legislation offers a number of political advantages. For instance, large bills make it easier for Members to vote for items that they would have a hard time justifying if they were part of a smaller measure. Additionally, it is harder for a President to veto such a large bill, even if he has reservations about parts. Some of these bills are more than a thousand pages long.
Omnibus bills have been criticized because they preclude a mature and reasoned consideration of the bill that allows for an open amendment process. Ideally, each individual bill should have its own period for debate; with an omnibus bill, the Members may only use the time allotted for that one bill to discuss the many different provisions. This will prove to be particularly vexing for House leadership. In the past, Speaker of the House John Boehner, has decried the use of such bills.
But all might not be lost for Speaker Boehner and House Republicans. In 2002, President Bush and Congress were not able to pass their appropriation bills before the start of the fiscal year, but they did not have to rely on an omnibus bill to pass the legislation. That being said, they did not finish their work until January 2002, well into the new fiscal year. Similarly, for fiscal year 2006, no omnibus was passed, but they did not complete their work on the last bill until the end of 2005. Granted, these are not examples of stellar statecraft, but they still do show that Congress can give due consideration to legislation, even if they are late.
So if the Congress would like to avoid an omnibus bill, they can. It will delay the process by quite some time, but it is still possible. Right now, they just have to make a choice of what they prefer: stability knowing that no there will be no more continuing resolutions and opportunities for government shutdowns or a slow and thoughtful debate over very important legislation? No one is saying that it is an easy choice to make, but they will eventually have to make it.
Omnibus Appropriations Acts: Overview of Recent Practices by Jessica Tollestrup for the Congressional Research Service. 25 August 2010.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research assistant. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.