All in favor of bidding 2020 a quick and ignominious goodbye? Yeah, that’s what we thought.
2020 was always going to be an eventful year, courtesy of the election. Then COVID-19 pulled the ultimate “hold my beer,” followed by one of the biggest financial challenges in our national history. Case in point, Congress signed off on $2.4 trillion in in just a few weeks in the spring, most notably the CARES Act. For context, lawmakers approve roughly $1.4 trillion to fund the government annually (there’s an additional roughly $3 trillion in mandatory spending like Social Security and Medicare). But like a tired infomercial – wait there’s more! – Congress, per usual, blew five deadlines to get the annual spending bills done. So, here we are, a little more than a week before the year closes out and a behemoth 7,517 page Omnibus + COVID relief package worth $2.4T rolls out around 2:30PM on a Monday and gets run through the Capitol in mere hours. Not only had no one read it all before voting, no one will have read the bill fully before it is signed into law a few days later.
Here’s why our disgust runs especially deep: We should and could have had this deal months ago. We are not opposed to COVID-19 relief by any stretch. The virus is surging and threatening the healthcare system, the economy is faltering, threatening millions with evictions and turning into a mass extinction event for small businesses. We’ve seen this coming for literally months. Instead, one of the longest bills we’ve ever seen is being rushed through with minutes left on the 116th Congress’ clock. When a package is leaving the Capitol Hill station this fast, you can expect all manner of hobos to catch a ride. Tax extenders, the cockroaches of Washington policy? Check. Also a big energy bill, the Water Resources Development Act, bills dealing with pipeline safety, Montana water rights, you name it. Remember how we mentioned lame ducks (six weeks and a million twitter news cycles ago)? This relatively do-little Congress did a lot (of damage) in its waning hours, with more than 20 irrelevant pieces of legislation hopping aboard that had no business taking a ride on this train. There’s even a catchall “Other Matters” section. Don’t miss the “Clean up the Code” section tacked on to the bill that removes federal criminal penalties from nine wacky items like the improper transportation of water hyacinths. Hey, we understand the need for revising the criminal code, but it’s indicative of Congressional dysfunction that it’s being done in this bill.
We’ve also seen how special interests do their very, very well–funded best to cry poor – or better yet – declare themselves essential. We saw this early on when defense contractors asked that their employees be categorized as essential. This allowed employers to force workers to show up on assembly lines, laboratories, and offices back when little was understood about the risks of person-to-person transmission. It was a selfish choice that also potentially leaves the taxpayer holding the liability bill down the road.
And speaking of defense contractors, the Omnibus portion of the bill adds more F-35s, more ships, more of just about everything at the Pentagon. Including at least $156 million for two procurement programs we couldn’t find in either the House or Senate bills.
It’s hard to remain sober and not give in entirely to snark when such lack of process, and expensive and avoidable waste, becomes the norm. Among other things, it bakes in lack of basic governance at a time when trillions sloshing through the system require more oversight, not less. That much money that fast requires better guardrails to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely, efficiently, and actually reaching the people it’s intended to help. Lawmakers must do better in 2021.
Is that possible? Yes. We’re already seeing glimmers of it, albeit heavily gilded by partisanship, but hey, if it will encourage Congress to rediscover its power of the purse …
You can’t be a budget watchdog without inherent optimism. And we’re not done thinking that Congress can, in fact, do its job. For starters, do what we at TCS do – actually read the bills, go through the language, call out the waste whether it applies to your pet project or not. You know, actually do your job.