Five More Things You Need to Know About the Spending Bill

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(Bloomberg View) -- Before the big spending bill Congress passed and the president signed last week -- after a brief temper tantrum -- slips out of memory entirely, I'm going to refer everyone to a good set of 10 questions from Ron Elving about the process and add five of my own (with some overlap):

No, really, shouldn't members of Congress read bills that they vote on?

No, really, they shouldn't. Legislative language is a specialized jargon, and members of Congress have specialists to do that. The process stunk because Congress finally got around to figuring out spending for a fiscal year that began months ago. That's not good. That it was rushed to the floor once it was ready isn't ideal, but that's sometimes necessary in order to keep deals from falling apart. What's important is that the authors take the time necessary to make the bill actually say what they want it to say. Republicans in Congress clearly failed that test on the tax bill passed late last year; I suspect they did better this time, although it's not clear yet whether any legislative riders were rushed or not.

OK, so the "read the bill" stuff is sort of a gimmick. But surely Congress should do each of the 12 appropriations bills separately, rather than combining them all into one monstrosity that the president must sign or the government shuts down.

Well ... no, not really. The reason for an omnibus bill is pretty simple: It allows for bargaining across different parts of the budget. In this case, Republicans wanted big increases in defense, and Democrats were willing to go along as long as non-defense spending also went up by about the same amount. The only way to make sure the deal held was to combine them. And, no, it wasn't unfair to the president. The White House was involved in the bargaining and presumably signed off on the bill. The time to object was before the bill passed Congress. If the president had real objections then, Congress could have passed a short-term bill to keep the government open while bargaining continued. 

Is the president correct that a line-item veto would reduce spending?

Nope, although given that the Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional, it doesn't really matter. A president could use a line-item veto to reduce spending, but he or she could also use the threat of a veto to secure higher appropriations levels. A line-item veto transfers influence from Congress to the president. It's neutral with respect to spending.

What about the filibuster?

It's true that the filibuster does give additional leverage to the minority party in the Senate. But in this case, what really mattered was that the House Freedom Caucus and other House Republicans weren't going to vote for spending levels that a simple majority of the Senate could pass. That's what allowed Democrats to bargain successfully for what they wanted. Fighting with the filibuster alone would have been an extremely risky gamble, one almost certainly destined to lose. 

And now we go through this all again?

Yup. The good news is that they've already agreed to the overall outline of a deal for fiscal-year 2019. The bad news is that they'll probably miss their deadline anyway, because most members of Congress would rather put off any difficult votes until a post-election lame-duck session. More generally, it appears that Republicans have hardly anything they want to get done before the midterm elections other than force a bunch of messaging votes. That's pathetic, really. Sometimes Congress lives down to its terrible reputation. 

1. Seth Masket on parties and democracy. Very good. 

2. Rick Hasen on the Supreme Court and partisan gerrymandering.

3. Andrew Rudalevige at the Monkey Cage on bump stocks and regulations

4. Also at the Monkey Cage: Sebastian Elischer and Lisa Mueller on protests in Niger.

5. Dan Drezner with second thoughts on John Bolton

6. Mark Hall on the effects of expanding Medicaid for the states.

7. Aaron Blake at the Fix on the administration's less-than-it-appears advocacy for a line-item veto

8. And Alyssa Rosenberg on what Anderson Cooper got right

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.

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