The omnibus oligarchy

Consider how this omnibus bill, like others before it, was developed. It didn’t happen the way we’re taught in civics class, where prudent legislators listen to their constituents, than gather to debate and discuss, offer amendments and hash out their differences in committee and on the congressional floor. It happened behind closed doors, negotiated by a small selection of officials from each house of Congress and the White House.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was involved, as were the majority and minority leaders of both houses. Democratic whip Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.) played a role, as did his GOP counterpart, Sen. John Thune (S.D.), plus Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who sits on the COVID-19 Congressional Oversight Commission. No doubt some other members had input, via their committee assignments, on some portions of the bill. (Congrats, I guess, if you happen to live in a state or district where the person supposedly representing you got 15 minutes at the omnibus oligarchs’ table.) All told, it’s glaringly evident that the executive branch plays a pseudo-legislative part while a mere fraction of our actual legislators have any significant say.

This is a relatively new dynamic. As recently as the 1990s, the congressional habit was to pass around a dozen appropriations bills to fund the government each year. The 1980s saw a short-lived trend of consolidation into omnibus packages, but a more sustained pattern began in 1996 and has continued since. President Trump swore off signing omnibuses in 2018, but it was a short-lived opposition to a format often deemed regrettable but inescapable.

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