An overloaded omnibus

Rep. Joseph R. Pitts Congressman, Pennsylvania 16th District
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In India and Pakistan, buses are painted in a swirl of bright colors and heavily ornamented with fringes and shiny chrome. Many times you will see these buses packed to the gills with passengers, some of them even hanging on to the sides. Baggage, and occasionally livestock, is piled high on top of the buses.

In America, a bus packed like this wouldn’t go five miles down the interstate before it was pulled over. It’s no surprise, then, that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid couldn’t drive his overloaded omnibus spending bill through the Senate.

Late this week, Reid announced that he would bring a 1,900-page spending bill to the floor. The bill spent $1.1 trillion and was packed with nearly 7,000 earmarks. These thousands of earmarks added up to $8 billion. While to some this was an insignificant amount, it was these pork projects that gave Reid hope that at least some Senate Republicans would vote for his bill.

Here are just a few of the important projects of national significance that would have received federal tax dollars:

  • $165,000 for maple syrup research.
  • $1 million for AFL-CIO training programs.
  • $1 million for peanut research in Georgia.
  • $208,000 for beaver management in North Carolina.
  • $2.5 million for bike paths in Illinois.

Also, let’s not forget that these projects aren’t just being paid for with taxes. Approximately 40 cents of every dollar in government spending is being fueled by debt right now. That means that $1 million of that money for bike paths would have come from China and other creditors.

Despite being firmly controlled by the Democrats, the Senate failed to consider any of the 12 separate spending bills that are typically handled by Congress each year. Instead of dealing with appropriations piece by piece, Senate appropriators waited until the week before Christmas to announce one giant bill.

This bill represented a $174 billion increase in spending over the last two years. Had it passed, non-defense discretionary spending would have increased by 19 percent since President Obama took office.

The earmarks aren’t the only problematic spending in the bill. It also contains $1 billion to implement the new healthcare law. Reid was trying extra hard to get this funding to the president so that it would be more difficult to target such funding in the next Congress.

The outcome of the election was a strong statement from the American people that the old way of doing things wouldn’t be tolerated anymore. It’s been said that on Capitol Hill there are Democrats, Republicans, and appropriators. The appropriators would get their earmarks, give some out to their colleagues and then everyone would gladly vote for the bill and brag about the projects they had won.

A lot of these earmarks were for good projects: roads that needed to be built, levees to protect from floods, and veterans’ clinics for wounded warriors. But the earmark process soon became corrupt and was seen as a method to convince reluctant members to support bills that expanded the size of government and the size of annual deficits.

Harry Reid won his bid for reelection, so it’s no surprise that he failed to see that things have changed. Republican senators knew better, and even some who got earmarks in the bill eventually turned against it. The bipartisan coalition of appropriators fell apart.

Is bipartisanship possible? I believe that it still is. The same day that Reid pulled the omnibus bill, 139 House Democrats and 138 House Democrats voted to pass the president’s tax agreement. Partisans on both sides voted against it, but it passed because we had to put aside differences and prevent a massive tax hike.

There will certainly be some that claim this breakdown on the Senate Appropriations Committee is the end of an era of collegiality. That collegiality, however, led to unbelievably packed omnibuses weighing down the American people.

We don’t need earmarks hanging off the sides of the omnibus. We need a simpler, streamlined bill that keeps the government running and gives the new majority time to identify wasteful programs; a bill that shrinks the federal government instead of growing it.

Rep. Joe Pitts represents Pennsylvania’s Sixteenth Congressional District.