H.R. 3610 – Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act, 1997

Summary
In the last days of September 1996, five weeks before a major election and right before adjournment of the 104th Congress, lawmakers passed an omnibus approprations package combining six bills. The House had previously passed all 13 regular bills on time, however several of these never cleared the Senate. The 1,198-page conference report was filed, considered and passed by the House in little more than three hours on a Saturday night, taking less than two hours to read it. The Senate passed the measure by Monday evening, taking a maximum of 48 hours to read the bill. H.R. 3610 was originally the defense appropriations bill, however it became the omnibus package after incorporating appropriations bills originally in H.R. 4278.

Overview

    Congress: 104th

    Date: September 1996

    Majority party: Republicans (House & Senate)

    Bill sponsors: Rep. Bill Young (R-FL)

    Committees of jurisdiction: House Committee on Appropriations

    President: Bill Clinton

Timeline
Methodology

House action on conference report
1 hour, 54 minutes to read 1,198-page conference report

    Sat., 9/28/1996 (6:42 PM) — House and Senate conferees file H. Rept. 104-863, the conference report to accompany H.R. 3610. BEGIN READING
    Sat., 9/28/1996 (8:36 PM) — Rep. Bob Livingston (R-LA) brings up conference report H. Rept. 104-863 by previously agreed to special order. END READING
    Sat., 9/28/1996 (10:15 PM) — House agrees to conference report by vote of 370 – 37, 1 Present (Roll no. 455).

Senate action on conference report
Up to 48 hours to read 1,198-page conference report

    Sat., 9/28/1996 (6:42 PM) — House and Senate conferees file H. Rept. 104-863, the conference report to accompany H.R. 3610.
    Mon., 9/30/1996 — Senate agrees to conference report by voice vote.

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Background
At the beginning of the House’s debate, Rep. Bob Livingston (R-FL) summarized the situation:

I am pleased to bring before the House the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act of 1997 that will fund the remaining appropriations bills for the full fiscal year and allow us to go home.
I want to say up front that the procedure that we were forced to follow was less than desirable. That procedure was initially caused by the other body’s inability to complete consideration of five appropriation bills. We also had to address the demands of the Clinton administration to increase domestic spending.
But the House was able to get its work done. We passed all of our bills promptly this summer, all 13 appropriations bills….
Now the procedure we used to develop this conference report is brought about because some of the bills got stymied on the other side. But in order to come to closure on these matters as well as to address the needs for increased funding for antiterrorism programs, the drug initiative, disaster assistance for Hurricane Fran, wildfires in the West, and to consider the demands of the administration for funding certain programs, we had to combine all of these remaining bills into one legislative agenda, one legislative package, which sits before you so the trade-offs could be made and the package could be viewed as a balanced one….
I want to say that this appropriation measure carries full-time funding for 6 complete bills, virtually half of the budget of the United States Government. It includes the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary; the Department of Defense, the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs; the Subcommittee on the Interior; the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education; and the Subcommittee on Treasury, Postal Service, and General Government.
In addition to augmenting various programs in these annual spending bills, we are providing funding for the antiterrorism program of some $981 million, we are giving $8.8 billion for a drug initiative to combat drug abuse and to interdict the inflow of drugs into this country, and we are providing nearly $400 million for relief from disasters such as Hurricane Fran.

Policy criticisms by others
During consideration in the House on September 28, Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-IL) said:

This large, end of the year, last minute spending bill is necessary because, for the second straight year, in the normal appropriations process the Gingrich-Dole Republicans insisted on including provisions that they knew the President opposed and that they knew the majority of Democratic Members, such as I, who believe in fairness and in following the rules, stood against; Democratic Members, such as I, who stand for support and protection of the working families of America; Democratic Members, such as I, who seek to provide for the vulnerable among us: the children, the elderly, the disabled.
Until now, the Gingrich-Dole Republicans have opposed the valuable supportive programs that Federal funds guarantee across our communities. They have threatened reductions in health care, education, job training, crime reduction, child care subsidies, anti-terrorism efforts, and emergency assistance for persons affected by natural disasters. For the second straight year, the Dole-Gingrich Republicans have delayed the budget process–trying to get their way like a bunch of spoiled children–until we are bumped up against the start of the new fiscal year.
But because the public has made clear its strong disapproval of the Dole-Gingrich Republican’s Government shutdown tactics, this year in an apparent election year conversion, the Republicans agreed to negotiate on funding important priorities such as those Democrats are known to champion. We are told that the bill provided us at this time includes agreement on essentially all of the President’s priority budget requests, to the tune of approximately $6.5 billion dollars. But don’t be fooled. The Gingrich Republican leaders of this Congress have pledged publicly and over-and-over again, that they will move to reverse these politically convenient concessions after the elections if they retain the leadership of the Congress.
Throughout the 104th Congress, I have been appalled at the tactics used by the extremist Dole-Gingrich Republican majority, designed to hold the Federal Government and the American people hostage to their extremist ideological agenda. Last year, in the passage of fiscal year 1996 appropriations bills, the draconian budget cuts proposed by the Republicans attempted to deliver critical blows to children and their families in their education, their health, their jobs and their safety; but, the President and the Democrats stood up for the American people and forced the Dole-Gingrich Republicans to add back level funding for many of the programs.
Mr. Speaker, at every turn of fiscal year 1996 and fiscal year 1997 budget negotiations the Dole-Gingrich extremists, simply refused to carry out their Constitutional responsibilities to govern fairly and equitably. It has been unbelievable. Adding insult to injury, they have continued the dangerous game of chicken that they have been playing with the lives of senior citizens, workers, small business people and all citizens of our country.
On the other hand, we Democrats and the President have stood so firmly in the face of extreme budget cuts and radically conservative tactics, that the Dole-Gingrich Republicans that control the Congress have been forced to accept the politically expedient strategy of negotiation in order to create an appropriations bill that would make it possible for the Federal Government to stay open a little while longer. Unfortunately, their best efforts are still not good enough for my constituents, not good enough for me and not good enough for the American people. I oppose this last minute run to end this Congress. Mr. Speaker, I urge my colleagues to vote against this bill.

Process criticisms by ReadtheBill.org

During consideration in the House, Rep. David Obey (D-WI) acknowledged that, while the situation was in some ways preferable to that of the previous year, the omnibus measure was in no way a desirable package:

I think it is useful for us to take just a few moments to analyze just how different this appropriation bill is from a number of appropriation bills which this House was considering just about a year ago.
A year ago, the majority tried to force the Clinton administration to sign a budget that set us on the path to cutting real levels of support for education by 30 percent, by cutting real levels of support for training by 40 percent, by cutting real levels of support for the environment by 30 percent.
This year, that will not happen. This year, the Government is not shutting down, and this year we are not seeing in the bill before us today those kinds of deep reductions in the investments that are necessary to make this country grow.
Last year, the Government was shut down on purpose in order to force the President to sign a bill which made very deep reductions in these investments. This year, we came within 3 days of seeing the Government shut down by accident. Thank God, it did not happen. I think a lot of people are due credit for that.
First of all, I would like to point out why we are here in this position tonight. Four months ago the House passed appropriations bills which asked the President to spend $11 billion more than he wanted to spend in the area of military spending. They put us on the road to a 5-year real reduction in support for education of 20 percent. They put us on the road to similar reductions in support for training, for Cops on the Beat, and other critical areas.
This committee did its job in passing all 13 appropriation bills, but half of the appropriation bills never finished their passage through the Congress, as the chairman has indicated.
In addition, there are a huge number of other authorizations which did not make it through the Congress. This bill must pass tonight because all of those others didn’t….
But this bill also contains a string of other authorizing legislation. In fact, there are some 31 separate major authorization provisions being attached.
I have been asked by many Members of the House, `Dave, can you guarantee that there is not some provision in here which we will regret when we hear about it in the weeks to come?’
My answer is simply to invite you to take a look at the stack on that table, or on the table in front of the gentlewoman from Ohio. That bill is not measured in pages, it is measured in feet. It is about a foot and a half long. I do not know how much it weighs, but you could get a double hernia lifting it.
I would simply say that I think I know most of the legislative decisions that were made by the Committee on Appropriations, but I certainly cannot verify that there are not some provisions in these other portions of the bill which we will wish we had not seen because they were managed by many other committees, there were not managed by the Committee on Appropriations. This is simply the vehicle by which all of that other legislation is getting done.
You have an immense amount of legislation that has never been considered by either body, and, as a result, I think that in many ways, unfortunately, this legislation is a case study in institutional failure because of the massive amount of somebody else’s unfinished business that had to be attached to the appropriations legislation.
As a result, we have had a huge number of Members, the vast majority of the people’s Representatives, who have been cut out of the process, and I think that that is a terrible abuse of the legislative process. It has also meant, frankly, that the administration has played a much heavier role in the direct drafting of legislation than I am, frankly, comfortable with. But I think that was made necessary by the lack of ability of the Congress as a bicameral institution to pass all of the legislation that it was required to pass without that kind of involvement….
I am sorry we could not help a lot of Members on a lot of items they would have liked help on, but we felt we could not do it because we, frankly, did not have the time to examine each of those items and we did not want to embarrass this institution by accepting many items that we knew very little or nothing about. So I thank all of the Members of the House for their understanding.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) also disapproved of legislating on the omnibus appropriations measure:

I want to tell my colleagues that I am one of those, like so many before me on the other side of the aisle in the eighties, who said, the omnibus appropriations or continuing resolutions are not the appropriate vehicles in which we ought to legislate, and I think that is true. This process is not one that ought to be emulated. This process is one that will leave many people in the dark as to what this final product is.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), who supported the measure, acknowledged the unreadability of omnibus bills:

Mr. Speaker, I rise in support of this, I am going to say, `ominous’ appropriations bill. As Mark Twain said about Wagner’s music, `It’s really better than it sounds.’
We do not like omnibus bills. Nobody does. They are big, they are huge, you do not have time to go through them, and we have reason to fear them. But this one is really better than it sounds.

Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-IL) criticized the Republican-controlled Congress for producing the unreadable omnibus bill:

Mr. Speaker, jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way? This omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 1997 is a huge Christmas tree, folks. The truth of the matter is that this huge Christmas tree can hide a multitude of errors and policy surprises if we pass it in our hurry to get out of town. Here we are, being asked to cast a vote on behalf of our constituents on a hastily prepared, barely reviewed, and full of who knows what. So, Members will stand up here and debate what little they know about the provisions of this catch-all bill, and we will vote on it. We will vote to provide appropriations for Defense, Commerce-Justice-State-Judiciary, Foreign Operations, Interior, Labor-HHS-Education, and Treasury-Postal Service-General Government, but we won’t know the amounts that these Departments and agencies will receive because the final details are still being flushed out. Therefore, I cannot support this legislation.

Rep. John LaFalce (D-NY) said:

Mr. Speaker, the procedure we followed on this continuing resolution should outrage every Member of Congress and the American public if they but knew.
I understand that as a Democrat I am a member of the minority party. That means that the Republicans, as the majority party, have the ability to pass legislation to implement their policies. That is the system and I fully support it.
I am not outraged just because I disagree with Republican policies against minority development. I am outraged because no one knows what is in this bill nor who put it here.
If a measure had been debated, supported by a majority of members and then offered for inclusion in this bill, that would have been one thing. But it is entirely something else to include proposals which have never been scrutinized.

During consideration in the Senate on September 30, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) said:

Mr. President, I signed the conference report–with reservation. I want my colleagues to understand that I have no reservations regarding the agreement on defense matters.
I do have reservations on the process by which several extraneous matters have been added to the DOD conference report. I understand that this was done in the interest of time. However, I must say that I do not think it is appropriate for entire appropriation bills–which have never been brought before the Senate–to be incorporated into a conference report.
I intend to vote for this measure because of the many worthy programs funded. I do so with some regret for certain measures which have been incorporated. And I hope that the next Congress will not follow this approach.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) said:

I know that Senator Hatfield, as would I, would have preferred to have had each of the fiscal year 1997 appropriation bills enacted separately rather than having them conglomerated into this massive omnibus bill. Senators should not be placed in the position that we find ourselves in at this moment. We should not be backed up against the wall here on the last day of the fiscal year, facing a Government shutdown unless we adopt this massive resolution. No Senator, and I dare say no staff person, has had the time to carefully review the thousands of programs funded in this resolution, or to read and comprehend the many nonappropriations, legislative matters contained in this resolution. What we are faced with is having to rely on those members and staffs in the House and Senate with jurisdiction over each of the provisions in this resolution. To my knowledge they, along with the Office of Management and Budget and other executive branch personnel, have approved each item and provision in their respective areas.
While I applaud the efforts of all those who have worked so hard on this measure, I nevertheless abhor the fact that it, once again, has come to this. We must redouble our efforts in future Congresses to get our work done, despite the very real differences among ourselves and with the administration. The leaders of the Senate have almost impossible burdens in meeting the requests of Senators throughout every session. I urge my colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, to commit themselves to working with both leaders in ways that will enable the next Congress not to have to consider such massive, omnibus legislation as the one now before the Senate.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) said:

As the Senator from West Virginia just said, this bill absolutely must be signed tonight. It is our intention to see to it that that takes place….
As a postscript, I also say I certainly do agree with the Senator from West Virginia–and I think the Senator from Oregon does too; I know he does–this is not the way to handle appropriations bills, and we must find a way to deal with our procedure to assure that bills from appropriations committees, that each bill is considered on its own merits and it goes to the President in a way that expresses the will of the Congress, and the President can express the will of the executive branch. Under our traditional system of checks and balances, that must be preserved in order to assure the freedom of this country.