$1.7 Trillion Omnibus Speeds Toward the Finish Line

$1.7 Trillion Omnibus Speeds Toward the Finish Line

A gleeful Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
By Yuval Rosenberg and Michael Rainey
Thursday, December 22, 2022

We hope you’re having a good Thursday even as a brutal winter storm bears down on most of the country and disrupts the travel plans of millions. Here’s what we’re watching while hoping Santa doesn’t get delayed.

$1.7 Trillion Omnibus Speeds Toward the Finish Line

With both a winter storm and the Christmas holiday rapidly approaching, the Senate on Thursday raced to pass a $1.7 trillion year-end spending package in a bipartisan 68-29 vote. The so-called omnibus bill to fund the government through September now goes to the House, where Democratic leaders had hoped to approve it tonight but will instead return Friday to pass it.

The House will also look to join the Senate in passing a short-term measure extending federal funding to December 30 and allowing time for the massive, 4,155-page omnibus bill to be processed without triggering a government shutdown.

As a reminder, the year-end package includes $858 billion for defense, $787 billion in non-defense discretionary funding, some $45 billion in additional aid for Ukraine and about $40 billion in disaster relief money. It also contains more than $15 billion for 7,234 earmarked projects. On top of that, it includes health and retirement policy changes, an overhaul of the 1887 Electoral Count Act and numerous other provisions.

The Senate pushed the package through with remarkable speed — though, of course, speed is a relative term and since we’re talking about the Senate it still meant an hours-long series of votes Thursday on 17 amendments leading up to the final approval of the larger package. Politico calculated that the entire vote series took a total of more than four hours, noting that “nothing motivates lawmakers more than the smell of jet fumes before the holiday break.”

The Senate process had hit a snag Thursday night over an amendment proposed by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) to extend the controversial Trump -era pandemic policy called Title 42, which allows for the rapid expulsion of migrants. The policy had been set to end this week but was kept in place temporarily by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts while the court considers legal efforts to extend it.

Lee had demanded an up-or-down vote on his amendment, which might have passed the Senate but could have scuttled the whole omnibus package in the House. In a compromise, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) allowed votes on the Lee amendment and a rival one from Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) and Jon Tester (D-MT). The deal gave moderate Democrats an out so they could vote against Lee’s measure. In the end, both amendments failed, clearing a glide path for the larger package to pass.

Schumer celebrated the end result. “We’ve concluded this Congress, one of the most productive in decades, with one of the best omnibus packages in decades,” he told reporters. “And here’s one of the things that amazes me: The amendment process made it better. Usually, when you have a big omnibus, the amendment process makes it worse because the minority is trying to undo a lot of the things in the bill. But here we stood firm and got it done.”

The approved amendments included a measure to protect pregnant workers against discrimination and require employers to allow workers time to breast feed. Other approved amendments would provide $6 billion in compensation for victims of state-sponsored terrorism, $1 billion for the World Trade Center Health Fund for first responders and would allow assets seized from Russian oligarchs to be used for aiding Ukraine.

The bottom line: Congress is set to approve a long-delayed set of 12 annual appropriations bills, with sharp increases in defense and non-defense funding representing a 9% boost to fiscal year 2022 levels. Overall discretionary spending is poised to climb from $1.5 trillion to about $1.65 trillion.

And while the gargantuan year-end package undoubtedly has plenty of provisions worth cheering, it comes months after the fiscal year and was passed via another last-minute scramble — another reminder that the congressional budgeting process has broken down. And the divisions within the Republican Party over the spending package portend some difficulties governing — including some likely legislative showdowns – over the next couple of years.

US Life Expectancy Falls to Two-Decade Low

With the country battered by Covid-19 and an ongoing drug overdose epidemic, average life expectancy in the United States fell to 76.4 years last year, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Thursday.

The grim report marks the second year in a row that life expectancy at birth has fallen, dropping to a level not seen since 1996. In 2020, life expectancy dropped by 1.8 years, a shockingly large change for a single year. Last year, the decline moderated, with life expectancy falling by six-tenths of a year — a smaller but still unusually large change over a 12-month period.

The causes of death remained basically steady from 2020 to 2021, with heart disease, cancer and Covid-19 claiming the top three spots.

Dr. Steven Woolf, a professor of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth University, told USA Today that the data indicates that all of the gains from medical advances made over the last 25 years have been wiped out. It also confirms that the U.S. population is worse off in terms of health than other wealthy nations, the majority of which saw rebounds in life expectancy last year following pandemic-driven declines the year before.

"The fact that the United States in 2020 and 2021 did so much worse than other countries is a warning sign that this health disadvantage that America has had for many years is really getting pretty bad," he said. "We need to make a decision as to whether we're just going to accept those losses and accept that Americans are going to be less healthy than people (in other wealthy countries) and live much shorter lives or we need to do something about it," he added. "We don't lack solutions. We lack political will."

Column of the Day: Choosing to Allow Child Poverty

Democrats had hoped to revive a more generous Child Tax Credit program that was enacted during the Covid-19 pandemic – and that temporarily slashed child poverty rates in the country – in the omnibus spending bill, but Republican opposition ensured that it was left out. Labor economist Kathryn A. Edwards, writing at Bloomberg Opinion Thursday, slams the outcome:

“Let’s face it: the US is completely capable of reducing child poverty. It chooses not to. Americans like to think that they live in a society of endless potential, where anyone with enough grit and determination can pull themselves up. Yet their elected representatives are unwilling to remove one of the greatest obstacles to prosperity — one that affects people at an extremely vulnerable stage in life, when they have no say in the matter.

“An expanded Child Tax Credit wouldn’t solve everything, but killing it off is a false economy. Congress is walking away from giving nearly three million children a better shot at the American Dream. That dream hasn’t failed: Policymakers simply lack the will to make it succeed.”

Number of the Day: 3.2%

The economy grew faster in the third quarter than initial estimates indicated, the Bureau of Economic Analysis said Thursday. Gross domestic product grew by 3.2% from July through September, the BEA announced, a significant increase from its first estimate of 2.6% and second estimate of 2.9%.

“The ‘third’ estimate of GDP released today is based on more complete source data than were available for the ‘second’ estimate issued last month,” the BEA said. “The increase in real GDP for the third quarter reflected increases in exports, consumer spending, nonresidential fixed investment, state and local government spending, and federal government spending, that were partly offset by decreases in residential fixed investment and private inventory investment.”

Stocks tumbled on the news, as traders weighed the odds that the Federal Reserve would push that much harder to reduce economic activity as it fights inflation. “The data was stronger across the board, and if there’s anything the Fed does not want to see these days, it’s better than expected data,” Paul Hickey of Bespoke Investment Group told CNN.

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