What is the difference between a budget resolution vs. omnibus spending bill?

A budget — specifically passed as a “budget resolution” — is a guideline document wherein Congress lays out its spending priorities. It is not signed by the president, and has no force of law. But it represents Congress’ agreed-upon spending levels for the multitude of federal government programs, and the Appropriations Committees in both House and Senate use the budget resolution to guide their work.

An appropriations bill, on the other hand, actually appropriates money. It passes Congress, and is signed (or vetoed) by the president. It has the force of law. In fact, the Constitution declares in Article I, Section 9, that, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”

So NO money is spent as the result of a budget resolution. Money is ONLY spent as the result of an appropriations bill.

An “omnibus” spending bill is simply a large appropriations bill that wraps two or more appropriations bills together into one large appropriations bill.

As far as who has the autonomy to decide how the money is spent, when an appropriations bill is signed into law, that means the president and the Congress have agreed that the money will be spent however the bill specifies that it will be spent.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work:

Early in the year, Congress passes a budget resolution. That resolution includes overall spending guidelines for each of the 12 jurisdictions and subcommittees of the Appropriations Committee. For example, it might say the U.S. government will spend $700 billion in Fiscal Year 2019 on programs under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense. But it doesn’t go too far down into the details.

Then the 12 Appropriations Subcommittees begin their work. In this example, the Defense Subcommittees of the Senate and House Appropriations Committees know that Congress has told them via the budget agreement to spend $700 billion on programs under their jurisdiction for FY 2019. So they divide up how, EXACTLY, that money is going to be spent — how much on each type of airplane, tank, uniforms, gasoline, pay for the members of the Armed Forces, etc. — the Defense Department is going to spend in FY 2019.

Under “regular order” — that is, if Congress is working the way it SHOULD work — each of the 12 Appropriations Subcommittees in each house produces a bill that appropriates money for the cabinet departments and agencies under its jurisdiction. Each of those bills is marked up (that is, discussed and amended, if the committee chooses to amend it) at the subcommittee level, and then again at the full committee level. So the Appropriations Committees in both House and Senate produce 12 different bills (24 in total — 12 for each house), and then each bill goes to the floor for a vote.

So, in our example, let’s assume the House Appropriations Committee has forwarded to the floor of the House the FY 2019 Defense Appropriations Bill. It passes. And the Senate Appropriations Committee has forwarded to the Senate floor its version of the FY 2019 Defense Appropriations bill. And it passes.

If the two bills are exactly the same, the bill then goes to the president for his signature and enactment into law.

But if the House and Senate disagree — that is, if the bill approved by the House does not agree exactly with the bill produced by the Senate — they “go to conference.” Members of the committees from each house will meet and discuss their differences, and will modify their bills so they are exactly the same. Once they come to agreement, they release what is called a “Conference Report,” and then the Conference Report goes back to the floor of each house. And once the Conference Report passes each house again, it then goes to the president for his signature and enactment into law.

That’s the way it’s SUPPOSED to work, for each of the 12 appropriations bill used to fund the government every year.

Except it has not worked that way for a LONG time.

Because the House is a majority-run institution, it’s RELATIVELY easy for the majority party to pass its desired appropriations bills.

But the Senate is an institution of compromise, where minority rights are far greater than in the House. The Senate requires 60 votes to end debate and move to a vote on a bill, including an appropriations bill. That gives the minority power leverage — if they don’t get at least some of what they want, they can all vote to refuse to end debate, and the bill cannot be voted on.

In recent years, the Democrats have been using their minority leverage to prevent the majority from moving each of its appropriations bill to the floor for a vote.

So, rather than passing each of the 12 appropriations bill one at a time — that is, “regular order” — they all get stuck in the queue, waiting for something to happen.

The two sides play a game of chicken, waiting to see which side will blink first.

Eventually, both sides realize that time is running out. The fiscal year of the US federal government runs from October 1 through September 30. So as the days pass in September, and we get closer and closer to the end of the fiscal year (and the end of funding for the government), the leadership will throw up its hands and say “Put all the unresolved appropriations bills together into one giant appropriations bill, and we’ll vote on that.”

That’s what an omnibus is.

It’s attractive to the leadership because it cuts from 12 down to just one the number of appropriations bills that have to be guided through floor consideration.

That saves a lot of floor time, and a lot of headaches. It’s also attractive to leadership because when you wrap this many bills into one, you get one HUGE bill — in this year’s case, 2,232 pages. And that makes it difficult to read in a timely fashion. And that allows the leadership to quietly slip things into the bill in hopes they can pass it before opponents of the provision in question can find out about it and mobilize opposition to it. It’s also attractive to leadership because there are almost ALWAYS controversies wrapped up in the appropriations process, and they’d rather deal with just a few days of negative press than deal with 12 different instances of negative press.

But it makes life very difficult for those of us who are trying to reduce government spending, which is another reason it’s attractive to the leadership — because, clearly, they just don’t agree with us that government spends too much money. By a legislator’s votes shall he be known.