Jan 10, 2023

The $1.6 trillion omnibus bill.

This might be the most important bill of the year.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

We're covering the omnibus bill that Congress passed during our holiday break. It's the biggest bill of the year — and perhaps the most important.


Welcome back, right? Yesterday, we inaccurately referred to Sen. Bob Casey (R-PA). Sen. Casey is a Democrat, and somehow this tiny error slipped past three Pennsylvania residents reviewing the newsletter (including me, the guy who writes it). My only excuse is that after the 2022 elections, I've written so much about retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, that "R-PA" became a reflex.

That's what you get when you play with rapid fire news hits...

This is our 75th correction in Tangle's 180-week history and our first correction since December 14th. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.

Quick hits.

  1. The House adopted a new rules package that was the centerpiece of negotiations for Rep. Kevin McCarthy's (R-CA) election as Speaker. (The rules)
  2. Roughly 10 classified documents were found by President Biden's lawyers at his former private office, were returned to the National Archives, and are being reviewed by the Justice Department. (The documents)
  3. Thousands of nurses at two New York City hospitals walked out in protest over working conditions and salaries. (The strike)
  4. A grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia, dissolved after filing its final report on 2020 election interference. There will be a hearing on January 24 to determine whether to make their findings public. (The investigation)
  5. President Biden declared a state of emergency in California, where 90% of the population — more than 34 million people — are under flood watches. (The storms)

Today's topic.

The omnibus bill. Reminder: The omnibus spending bill was passed before the new Congress was sworn in during Tangle’s holiday break. It is perhaps the most important piece of legislation of the year, so we are covering it in full today.

Last month, Congress passed a $1.65 trillion government funding bill that provides record allocations for defense and sends more emergency aid to Ukraine. The bill passed by a 225-201 vote in the House, largely along party lines, after passing the Senate 68-29, with the support of 18 Senate Republicans, including minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

What's an omnibus bill? An omnibus bill groups together many ideas or measures into a single huge bill. The current budget bill supplies funding for the whole government for the entire year. Due to Congressional dysfunction, the federal government's budget is often running on what's called a "Continuing Resolution" (CR), which is a stop-gap funding bill. The omnibus budget bill is a long-term spending agreement that lasts an entire fiscal year, combining all 12 appropriation budgets. Here is a helpful round-up of those budgets, courtesy of Rep. Mike Simpson. We’ve also included the 2023 funding allocations for each appropriations bill in italics.

  • Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies, which oversees funding for the USDA (except the Forest Service), among other agencies: $25.5 billion
  • Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, which oversees funding for the Department of Commerce, the Department of Justice, NASA, and other agencies: $82.4 billion
  • Defense, which oversees funding for the military, intelligence agencies, and other agencies related to national defense: $797.7 billion
  • Energy and Water Development, which oversees funding for the Department of Energy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other agencies: $54 billion
  • Financial Services and General Government, which oversees funding for the Department of the Treasury, the Executive Office of the President, and other government functions: $27.6 billion
  • Homeland Security, which oversees funding for the Department of Homeland Security: $60.7 billion
  • Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, which oversees funding for the Department of the Interior, the EPA, the U.S. Forest Service, and a number of independent agencies: $38.9 billion
  • Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, which oversees funding for the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, and other agencies: $207.4 billion
  • Legislative Branch, which oversees funding for the House of Representatives (the Senate Legislative Branch oversees funding for the U.S. Senate), the U.S. Capitol, the Library of Congress, and other legislative branch functions: $6.9 billion
  • Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies, which oversees funding for military construction (including military housing), the Department of Veterans Affairs, and related agencies: $154.2 billion
  • State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, which oversees funding for the U.S. State Department, USAID, and related programs: $59.7 billion
  • Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies, which oversees funding for the Department of Transportation, HUD, and related agencies: $87.3 billion

What just happened? Right before Christmas, Congress passed a $1.65 trillion omnibus bill to fund the government through September. It includes $858 billion in military spending (up $76 billion from last year) and $772.5 billion in non-defense, domestic discretionary spending (up $42.5 billion from last year).

The bill is a massive, 4,100-page piece of legislation that does not only pertain to funding, but also implements new laws. We will try to highlight the major items that made it in and those that didn't.

What got in: $45 billion of aid for Ukraine and allies, $40 billion to help communities hit by natural disasters, and a small reduction in funding for the Internal Revenue Services (IRS). Members re-wrote the Electoral Count Act to make it harder to overturn certified elections and clarify that a vice president has only a ceremonial role in vote-counting. The omnibus bill also bans the app TikTok on government phones and creates new retirement rules that incentivize saving, give part-time workers access to retirement benefits, and raise the age when required minimum distributions from some accounts must start.

Among many other things, the bill also includes:

  • An extension of the Special Immigrant Visa program that offers green cards to Afghans who helped during the war.
  • Permanent funding for meals for low-income children during the summer.
  • Funding for U.S. attorneys in the Jan. 6 trials.
  • Workplace accommodations (like additional bathroom breaks, extra time to pump breast milk, and relief from heavy lifting) for pregnant and nursing workers.
  • Changes to Medicaid to allow states to re-evaluate eligibility for enrollees who signed up during the pandemic and no longer meet requirements to qualify.
  • A $500 increase in the maximum amount that can be given through Pell Grants.
  • $5 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance program.
  • Additional funding for the U.S. Capitol Police.
  • Additional funding for mental health services in schools.
  • $3.6 billion in funding for homeless assistance grants.
  • Boosted funding for the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • A delay in the implementation of new regulations for Maine's lobster industry until 2029.
  • An increase in the National Labor Relations Board funding by $25 million, the first increase in almost a decade.

What didn't get in: The White House failed to negotiate the inclusion of $10 billion in additional funding for the pandemic, an extension of the Child Tax Credit, or legislation that would have shielded banks from penalties if they handle marijuana-related transactions. Congress also ultimately rejected legislation that would have narrowed the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine convictions, despite having bipartisan support.

The bill also did not include:

  • A final resolution on where the new FBI headquarters will be.
  • The Afghan Adjustment Act, which would have given Afghan allies a path to permanent residency before the expiration of their temporary status.
  • A measure that would have given federal money to projects to restore habitats for struggling species.
  • The reversal of family and business tax laws that will take effect this year after being scheduled in former President Trump's 2017 tax reform bill.
  • The Open App Markets Act, which aimed to promote competition and cost reduction in the app market.
  • Energy permitting reforms that were being pushed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).

Today, we'll take a look at some arguments from the left and right about these provisions, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • The left is mixed on the bill, with some criticizing the things that were left out and others celebrating certain legislative gains.
  • Many writers criticized the process but celebrated non-budget related legislation that got shoehorned in.
  • Others specifically celebrated the inclusion of the Electoral Count Act.

The Bloomberg editorial board said the omnibus bill is "deliberately unintelligible to voters and a parody of fiscal incompetence."

"Here’s the good news: It could’ve been worse. Until the past few days, a more ambitious deal had been taking shape," the board wrote. "The idea was to combine business-tax cuts supported by Republicans with a permanent expansion of the child tax credit favored by Democrats. Without big offsetting tax increases or spending cuts, a plan along these lines would have increased public borrowing enormously — something the US can ill afford. It’s good that the deal has avoided this error. Some other elements are welcome too. The plan incorporates the Senate’s version of the Electoral Count Reform Act, a bipartisan response to the machinations of January 2021 that will make it harder to overturn the results of future presidential elections.

"Also good (and equally remote from budget policy), the bill bans the use of TikTok on many government-issued devices on national-security grounds," they added. "These and other sensible ingredients shouldn’t distract attention from the defects of the larger process. Congress failed to pass any of the regular appropriations bills for the fiscal year that began in October... Beyond averting an immediate crisis, though, policymakers showed no inclination to weigh costs and benefits, choose among competing priorities or otherwise make any difficult decisions."

In The New Republic, Tori Otten said the bill left three very popular items out.

"Two measures seeking to reform marijuana and cocaine policy have been left out of the omnibus, despite bipartisan support for both. Congress had sought to allow cannabis companies to open bank accounts. Since marijuana is currently illegal under federal law, most banks won’t take a dispensary’s deposits, forcing the businesses to operate on a mostly cash basis," Otten said. "The second measure, the EQUAL Act, was aimed at reducing the disparity in sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine offenses. Current laws for crack cocaine are much stricter: An individual needs to possess 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the five-year mandatory sentence, but only 28 grams of crack. These rules disproportionately affect people of color.

"The omnibus also leaves out the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would have expanded the special immigration visa program to help people fleeing Afghanistan and created a path to permanent residency for those already here," she wrote. "The omnibus does not revive the expanded Child Tax Credit, which helped lift millions of children out of poverty over the past year. The CTC was dramatically expanded in the first months of the Biden administration. Up to $3,600 per child was delivered to parents—including to households that were previously ineligible because they had no income—and helped cut the national child poverty rate nearly in half. But those benefits expired last December, and roughly four million kids fell back into poverty.

In MSNBC, Hayes Brown said Congress is finally closing an "election loophole" that Trump exploited.

"These minor changes would have been impossible to accomplish in just a few weeks when Republicans take over the House," Brown wrote. "The Electoral Count Reform Act clarifies some of the supposed 'loopholes' that Trumpworld lawyers cited when pushing former Vice President Mike Pence to nullify Joe Biden’s win on Jan. 6, 2021. The clarification includes language making clear that the vice president’s role is ceremonial, meaning that the vice president doesn’t have the power to toss out states’ electoral votes or 'send it back to the states.' The act also raises the threshold for members of Congress to object to electoral votes and makes it harder for state legislatures or governors to ignore the popular vote when certifying Electoral College votes.

"Now, in the spirit of the season, I need to offer a mea culpa," Brown added. I viewed [Mitch] McConnell’s [support] with skepticism, concluding that it was part of a strategy to weaken support for the Democrats’ John Lewis: Freedom to Vote Act, and dubbed it a 'poison pill.' In hindsight, though, there’s no evidence that support for the ECA siphoned support for the John Lewis bill. Even after the Senate GOP filibustered the voting rights bill (again), McConnell kept on supporting the bipartisan efforts to update the Electoral Count Act. And the two Democrats who could have voted to carve out an exception on the filibuster didn’t use the ECA negotiations as an excuse to let the larger bill die."

What the right is saying.

  • The right is overwhelmingly critical of the bill, saying it's a spending bonanza and the legislative process is broken.
  • Some described it as one of the most irresponsible budgets in American history.
  • Others argued that even though the bill was irresponsible, Republicans had little choice but to help pass it.

In National Review, Philip Klein called it a "scandal."

"It is not a scandal to be added to the salacious and shocking catalogue of notorious Washington scandals, but a scandal precisely because what is happening has become a completely ordinary way for business to be conducted in Washington," Klein said. "Sure, lawmakers could have followed a process in which a budget is unveiled and passed in the spring, and all priorities are discussed within relevant committees in full public view for months. Legislative text could be released well in advance of any vote, allowing for plenty of time to view it and debate amendments. And lawmakers could divide different policies into different bills so that each can be evaluated on its own merits. But running things this way would risk subjecting policies to actual debate.

"Instead, Congress has passed a series of short-term funding measures since the fiscal year began on October 1 so they could manufacture a crisis in the waning days of 2022," he wrote. "This has allowed congressional leaders and their staffs to hide behind closed doors, load a freight train with their preferred government-funded goodies, get the media to describe it as a 'must-pass bill,' and dare anybody to vote against the final product and risk shutting down the government ahead of Christmas. Any senator who wants Electoral Count Act reform will have to vote to increase funding for Medicaid; anybody who wants to finance the military will need to vote to increase spending on food stamps and for more infrastructure money. Anybody who does not blindly agree to pass this mammoth piece of legislation will be accused of leaving a lump of coal in the stockings of America’s veterans."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called it the "ugliest omnibus bill ever."

"Democrats failed in their duty to pass normal spending bills, so they are using this omnibus to finance all of government with $1.65 trillion for fiscal 2023. But wait, it’s worse. Congress is also adding major policy changes many of which deserve separate votes or couldn’t pass by themselves—from healthcare to presidential election rules to regulation of the beauty industry," they wrote. "Republicans are boasting about a symbolic $275 million cut to the IRS’s annual budget—but that’s a drop in the $80 billion gusher bestowed on the agency in August. The overall discretionary pot holds as much as $16 billion in earmarks—including $656 million in parting gifts for retiring Senate Appropriations Vice Chairman Richard Shelby.

"Past omnibuses included discreet policy riders, though don’t confuse those with the major legislation in this bill. This omnibus bans TikTok on government devices," the board said. "Congress is jamming through major changes in public-land management; a plan to phase out large-scale driftnet fishing; new oversight on horse-racing; a restructure of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office; changes to help Boeing meet aircraft-certification deadlines; and alterations to lobster regulation. That’s before lawmakers shoe-horned in sweeping healthcare changes on everything from Medicaid eligibility to the Children’s Health Insurance Program to Medicare provider payments."

In The Washington Post, Henry Olsen said Republicans should support the "terrible" omnibus bill.

"The question isn’t whether this bill measures up; it is about whether there is a preferable alternative. The answer, sadly, is that there are no better ways forward," Olsen wrote. "Because Democrats will continue to control the Senate, they have effective veto power on any spending packages they don’t find palatable regardless of who controls the House. In other words, it is unlikely Republicans would get anything better even if they waited to take control of the House. The idea that Congress should just fund programs at their current levels — or pass a continuing resolution, in Congress-speak — is also not an acceptable option.

"The United States must increase its defense spending quickly to meet the threat posed by China. The omnibus, as odious as it is in many respects, will do that, hiking defense spending by about 10 percent," Olsen said. "A continuing resolution, by contrast, would delay rearmament. That would be an intolerable outcome in a world where our allies are dramatically increasing their spending and China threatens our Pacific defense posture. The notion that Republicans should threaten to shut down the government until they get their way also fails to pass muster... Americans, rather sensibly, prefer compromise to dysfunction."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • In a bill this big, there will always be good and bad.
  • Far more important is just how badly this process has become, and how accepting of it we are.
  • It's a reminder of why some recent proposals to House rules would actually be productive.

The low-hanging fruit here is to say the obvious: That Congress is dysfunctional, that the system is broken, and that few things illustrate this reality better than the anatomy of the omnibus bill (and the process that made it law).

But words like "dysfunction" make it sound as if the driver has lost control of the bus. The reality is the opposite. Members of Congress are operating in their comfort zones, in a new reality where last-minute, must-pass omnibus budgets get stuffed with things they can brag about to their constituents and get exposed to little or no debate. The process is nearly identical to what happened last year.

It's hard to think of a perfect analogy for this but I'll give it my best shot: Imagine a team of doctors (Congress) is seeing a group of 50 patients (American citizens) and trying to address their health (all the things that are and aren't working in our country, at the federal level). Ideally, these doctors would spend time with each patient, perform tests, consult colleagues who specialize in certain conditions, come up with treatment plans, propose their plans, review each other's plans, consult studies on the drugs they might use, discuss treatments with the patients, enact consensus plans, then spend months or years following up to see if the treatments actually worked. That'd be a pretty good, functional outcome.

Imagine instead that the doctors write down every ailment they hear from the patients, put all those ailments on one giant list, Google prescription drugs that treat those ailments, then give all their patients all the drugs they can find and tell them their options are a) don't treat your ailment at all or b) take all this medicine — some of which you may or may not need — and we'll see if it improves your condition. Also, you have 30 seconds to decide and we're not really sure about the side effects of some of these drugs.

That's basically what's happening right now.

Does this mean every medicine you're going to take is useless, too expensive and ineffective? Nope. Some of the medicine will actually work. Shoot, 20 or 30 of the patients may get better. A few might stumble onto a miracle drug. But a lot of it won't work, a lot of it will be too expensive, some might be dangerous, and plenty of great treatments won't be prescribed because the doctors spent approximately zero time talking to each other or consulting experts in their fields. Even worse, a lot of the doctors are confident in their plan, because they know they've thrown just enough medicine out there that just enough of their patients will get better that they will probably keep their jobs.

So, are there parts of this omnibus bill I'm happy about? Sure. The Electoral Count Act reform is smart. The changes to retirement rules seem beneficial. Insulating members of Congress from potentially vulnerable social media apps is probably smart. All that's well and good. But guess what? This is supposed to be about our budget — not passing election reform or social media bans.

Were there things left out that I wanted? Yes, definitely: Put the slam dunk, bipartisan drug reforms at the top of the list. It's totally confounding to me how something like that doesn't make it into a bill like this, so don't ask me why it got cut. I don't have a good answer.

Meanwhile, Medicare's Hospital Insurance trust fund will run out of money by 2028 and Congress did nothing. Many of the Afghan allies who risked life and limb for our "war on terrorism" abroad are at high risk of deportation soon, and they mostly got inaction. Energy permitting reform, which would have traded the completion of a single natural gas pipeline in West Virginia and some looser regulation for a future where sustainable infrastructure projects could be more easily completed, somehow died.

But again: the problem here isn't that incompetent members of Congress can’t legislate within an otherwise functional system. It's that competent members of Congress have learned to function in a legislative system that itself is increasingly dysfunctional.

This is why after the Freedom Caucus held up a House Speaker candidate, insisting members return to regular order, vote on individual appropriation bills, receive 72 hours to review legislation, and balance the budget... I said we should acknowledge that they floated reasonable ideas. A good deal of media coverage emphasizes their bad ideas, or amplifies intraparty takedowns casting them as "legislative terrorists," or pretends everything they're suggesting is absurd, but we can see in real time why some of their demands are actually much needed reforms.

At the very least, we should all be able to acknowledge that the current state of play is unacceptable.

Your questions, answered.

We're skipping today's reader questions to save some space. But don't forget, you can ask a question by replying to this email or filling out this form.

A story that matters.

New polling shows that Republicans and Democrats are sharply divided over what groups of Americans face discrimination. More than 80% of Democrats say Black, Latino, gay and Jewish people face prejudice while a majority of Republicans say discrimination is more often aimed at white people and Christians. "Some 59% of Republicans in the Journal survey said that white people face discrimination or prejudice, compared with 21% of Democrats who said so," The Wall Street Journal reported. "By contrast, 88% of Democrats said Black people face discrimination or prejudice, compared with 49% of Republicans who said so." These divides are critical to the political battles happening over how race, gender, and history are discussed and taught in schools. WSJ has the story.


  • $5 billion. The amount of funding in the omnibus bill for the Cost of War Toxic Exposures Fund.
  • $1 billion. The amount of funding in the omnibus bill to improve Puerto Rico's electrical grid.
  • $600 million. The amount of funding in the omnibus bill to respond to the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi.
  • $132 million. The increase in funding for the U.S. Capitol Police Department.
  • $3.6 million. The amount of funding in the bill for a hiking trail in Georgia named after Michelle Obama.
  • $1.5 million. The amount of funding in the bill for the City of Hallandale Beach to build an all-electric bus fleet and electric vehicle charging facility in Florida.

Have a nice day.

A new United Nations report released yesterday shows that the earth's ozone layer is expected to return to 1980 levels in the next few decades. Every four years, the U.N. conducts an assessment of the Montreal Protocol of 1987’s impact, and this is one of the most encouraging reports yet. More than 35 years after 198 countries agreed to ban a class of chemicals in refrigerants and aerosols that damage the ozone layer, improvement remains slow and steady. Scientists are calling it one of the biggest ecological victories in human history, citing the global cooperation and observable positive impacts of the ban. The Associated Press has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.