Before turning over the House Speakership to Paul Ryan in October, John Boehner "cleaned the barn" by agreeing with Nancy Pelosi on a two year year budget bill which broke the restrictions of the 2011 sequester, and also passed an increase in the debt ceiling to carry us into 2017. Those were the general numbers; last week came the omnibus tax and spending bills to provide the details through September 2016. When the Democratic leader talks of Ryan "giving away the store" in exchange for legalization of oil exports, President Obama actively lobbies for Ryan's legislation, and Politico talks of a re-energized President Obama preparing his 2016 agenda, you know that the Republicans have blown the last opportunity to attach their agenda to legislation which the President needed to sign.
By definition, "omnibus" means just about everything - the detailed spending levels and tax levies recommended by all of the committees of Congress dealing with appropriations, after consultation with all of their lobbyists and benefactors. The combination of spending, taxes, and policy riders gave plenty to dislike, and a few things to like.
On the dislike side - the primary objection goes to the fiscal conservatives. There is room to argue about the performance of the economy over Obama's presidency, but there is no room to argue about the fact that our politicians (led by Obama and Pelosi, but including many Republicans) have discovered the politically successful formula of marrying huge spending with modest taxes, financed by massive federal debt to eventually be paid by our grandkids or eliminated by crippling inflation. The package of $1.1 trillion in spending and $650 billion in tax cuts puts the debt clock path toward $19 trillion after years of Tea Party-led recovery.
Some of the winners and losers:
Several departments received significant increases, sometimes above what the administration proposed - the Veterans Administration (claims processing); the Office of Personnel Management (cybersecurity), the Secret Service (prominent breaches), NASA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Institute of Health, and the Census Bureau.
Others felt the wrath of conservatives - the Environmental Protection Agency (below FY2014 funding), the Internal Revenue Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Securities Exchange Commission, and the US Postal Service.
The tax provisions included gifts for everyone, frequently making "permanent" fixes which have previously been enacted annually - for business, improvements on research and capital investment write-offs; for families, increased child tax credits, college tax credits, and earned income tax credits; a federal deduction for state sales taxes (useful in states without income taxes); a delay in some painful Obamacare taxes; and on, and on.
Particularly irksome to conservatives was the abandonment of "the good fight" on symbolic issues - defunding of Planned Parenthood; funds for the re-settlement of Latin American and Syrian refugees; defunding of Obamacare.
There are three perspectives on what happened.
1. The populist conservative Freedom Caucus overplayed their hand. With the House being split 247 Republicans to 188 Democrats, 29 recalcitrant Republicans are able to block the speaker - and they do. Republican speakers had been guided by the "Hastert Rule" since the 1990's, requiring that legislation would not be brought to the floor unless it had the support of a majority of the caucus. When the majority of the caucus does not translate to a majority of the House, it has been necessary for Boehner and now Ryan to get Democratic votes. Pelosi exercises firm discipline, not giving Ryan enough votes to pass legislation unless it contains much of what she wants. The final House vote on the omnibus bill included 166 Democrats and 150 Republicans in favor, There was no alternative supported by 218 Republicans, and 97 Republicans chose to go home to tell their constituents that they had voted "NO".
2. Paul Ryan is playing the long game. Not much really is going to change unless we elect a Republican president, and the chances of that are far greater if Washington is not embroiled in the "government shutdown" narrative. (Forget that it would really be the president shutting it down if faced with a budget acceptable to the conservatives. The media and the Public see it as a Republican sin.) Besides, the piecemeal tax provisions in the agreement are moot after 2016; no matter who is president, the Republican House will produce a comprehensive tax reform plan and spending which will bend back toward balanced budgets in a decade.
3. To borrow a phrase from Donald Trump, the inexperienced Ryan got schlonged by Pelosi.
This week's bonus is from a reader in California, for those who like the philosophy of Charlie Daniels.