THE collapse of President Clinton's legislative agenda at the
end of this Congress ought to ring the death knell for a notorious
legislative gorilla known as the omnibus bill.
For almost two decades, this has been the primary vehicle to
address major issues. It won't work anymore. Congress should
immediately break big issues into small and discrete pieces and
tackle them one piece at a time.
Such critical issues as health care, government reorganization,
and telecommunications, packaged as omnibus bills in this Congress,
all fell victim to their own gargantuan size and complexity. The
crime bill nearly suffered the same fate. All were packed with so
many diverse elements that they overwhelmed the legislative
The modern omnibus bill was born out of the budget process
created in 1974 to give Congress more influence over national
fiscal policy. Two legislative instruments were created: budget
resolutions and budget reconciliation.
Later, President Carter used omnibus legislation to reshape
energy policy. Congress depended on it to pass huge appropriations
necessary to keep the government funded beyond each fiscal year.
Then-Rep. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi applied the acronym BOMB
(Bloated Omnibus Money Bills) to these monstrosities. President
Reagan turned omnibus bills into an art form by using them as the
principal vehicles for tax cuts and deficit reduction. Even he
realized their folly, slamming one to the podium during a State of
the Union address and vowing never to sign another.
Omnibus bills once served a purpose. They provided a mechanism
for dealing with difficult issues. They were based on a system in
which consensus and compromise were the passwords for progress.
They circumvented jurisdictional disputes among committees and
provided cover for items that, on their own, would never pass. They
also gave rise to the drumbeat for a presidential line-item veto.
The expediency of the catch-all bill is alluring. But expediency
seldom brings credit or productivity to our legislative process.
Never has that been more evident than in the 103rd Congress.
President Clinton's omnibus health-care initiative responded to
the public enthusiasm for change in health-care delivery. But in
its size and scope, it denied the public the opportunity to address
issues individually or influence each of the provisions of
health-care reform separately.
The public's insistence on congressional action is not
necessarily inconsistent with the public's distrust of the Congress
to act in their best interest when - as in the case of health care
- change is offered in an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it
1,300-page opus. …