O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree, of all the trees most lovely. O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, of all the trees most lovely. Each year, you bring to me delight, gleaming in the Christmas night. O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, of all the trees most lovely. So ring out the lyrics to the 1824 German carol.
And what a lovely tree was enacted by the US Congress this last week with the so called Cromnibus spending bill. This gargantuan 1,600 page piece of legislation will keep nearly all of the Federal government operating through next fiscal year.
In the vernacular of government affairs, a so called Christmas Tree bill is one where dozens, even hundreds of different odds and ends are attached to a piece of legislation, much like decorations are hung on the ritual shrubbery. Usually these odds and ends are glittery things designed to ingratiate legislators with a particular constituency or home-town cause. They are what in normal times are called pork barrel projects but when they all come together into something like the Cromnibus they are more glittery and sparkly. And what a Christmas Tree this legislation is.
According to the Washington Post, the Cromnibus includes funds for:
- Obamacare but does not provide funds for the Internal Revenue Service and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the two agencies most responsible for implementing the law;
- Amtrak a major pork project for Democratic members which will receive $1.39 billion;
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which will get $6.9 billion to pay for among other things, lobbying activities to promote temperance and anti-smoking campaigns;
- $5.4 billion to combat the spread of Ebola in the United States and around the world;
- Actual cuts to the EPA, which will still receive $8.1 billion, but will have to reduce its staffing to the lowest levels since 1989;
- A one percent pay raise for federal workers;
- $150 million in federal dollars for continued improvements to Washington DC’s subway system along with an additional $10.7 billion for transit programs nationwide, though not for high-speed rail projects;
- A big victory for the potato lobby (yes there is a potato lobby) as the bill requires that all varieties of fresh vegetables, including white potatoes, are eligible for purchase with food stamps;
- $257 million for the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response programs, a particular concern of New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand;
- Even $1 million in the bill to compensate ranchers for livestock killed by wolves.
In addition, the Cromnibus includes provisions that:
- Would ban the Fish and Wildlife Service from adding the Sage Grouse to the Endangered Species List;
- Would give more flexibility to school districts to implement new whole grain nutrition standards being pushed by First Lady Michele Obama;
- Require the Postal Service to continue six-day deliveries;
- Prohibit Federal standards that would essentially ban the use of incandescent light bulbs; and
- Prohibit the legalization of marijuana in the District of Columbia and the Justice Department from interfering with state-level medical marijuana measures.
So this is a massive Christmas Tree of legislation. But is all of that bad? At least Congress has passed something and all in all the bill does a lot of things, many of which are very popular among voters or important to specific business interests.
The honest truth is that the Cromnibus is probably one of the best pieces of legislation passed in years, simply because it is such a massive Christmas Tree. In all negotiations, including political negotiations, all parties need to win in order to come to an agreement. When legislation is forced to be what politicians call clean in that it addresses only one issue or topic, it is almost impossible to get a majority to agree on it. That is why member items – or what some call pork – is so important to the operations of the Congress.
Take any difficult issue, say funding the enforcement mechanisms behind the Affordable Care Act. A huge number of legislators despise Obamacare for a wide range of reasons and they don’t want to fund enforcement that they believe is detrimental to the nation and the economy. But at the same time Obamacare was passed by Congress and it is the law, so supporters want to ensure that it is fully funded. With a fairly even split in Congress it is hard to get 60 votes to either pass funding or defunding as a single issue. But add to this a range of pet projects and individual members can be convinced to (in this case) not provide funding, as long as say Amtrak or the CDC are funded. This give and take is how compromise works in Washington, and the Cromibus is a great example of it.
Each year, you bring to me delight, gleaming in the Christmas night. So read those nearly 200 year old lyrics. And a delightful gleaming Christmas tree is there for all of us to unwrap as the 113th Congress limps away from Washington for the last time.