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'Minibus' Budget Bill Passes the House

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A couple of weeks ago we talked about the possibility of Congress rolling the remaining appropriations bills into one package (called an omnibus bill) so lawmakers could approve the legislation before the end-of-year recess. Aside from that deadline, a continuing resolution (the second one this year) is set to expire on Dec. 18, and that would leave major portions of the federal government without funding.

There were seven budget bills remaining this year: (Commerce, Defense, Financial Services, Labor/HHS/Education, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, State/Foreign Operations, Transportation/HUD). While many predicted they would all be combined into one omnibus bill, it looks like Congress will consider the Defense spending bill separately. The other six bills were combined in a "minibus" package, filed as a conference report, and posted online yesterday.

As regular readers know, we're big advocates of transparency and openness at the Sunlight Foundation and OpenCongress. We've been advocating for a 72-hour rule for a long time, and I was planning to use this post to show that the bill was not going to be available online for 72 hours before a vote. Before I could do that, it was approved in the House (by a vote of 221-202, full roll call coming soon). We don't even have a page on the bill here on OpenCongress yet.

That the bill wasn't online for 72 hours is, in itself, not the biggest consideration: it is a 1,000+ page piece of legislation that contains more than a trillion dollars in spending for five of the largest federal agencies in the country, plus Medicare and Medicaid. Each one of the appropriations bills that was combined have constituencies: members of the public, organizations, groups, companies, foreign policy, all are impacted by these individual bills. Each individual bill should have been debated out in the open, where stakeholders could participate in the process and members could vote on the separate pieces.

Instead, the incentives for supporting (or opposing) such a large piece of legislation change, often drastically.

The situation with the Defense spending bill will be similar--and likely much more difficult. In addition to the normal Defense budget, expect funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (including money for the troop increase recently announced by President Obama), an extension of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program and COBRA subsidies (which I blogged about earlier this week), and according to some reports, legislation to raise the debt ceiling (which Donny touched on today). On top of all that, there's literally no telling what else might get added at the last minute.

We'll do our best to keep you apprised of the situation, but OpenCongress can only do so much: we need Congress to step up and do a better job of making information available to citizens.

Correction: The above was changed to show that there were seven budget bills remaining this year, and six of those were combined to form the minibus.