Cluttered Omnibus Appropriations Bill Finally Passes

By McArthur, Shirl | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Cluttered Omnibus Appropriations Bill Finally Passes


McArthur, Shirl, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Cluttered Omnibus Appropriations Bill Finally Passes

Finally, on Oct. 21, 12 days after it was scheduled to adjourn, the 105th Congress closed up shop and headed home to the important business of campaigning for reelection. The final agenda item was to pass a huge, "omnibus" appropriations bill that combined the eight appropriations bills that Congress had not been able to pass previously, usually because one special interest group or another had managed to tack on one or more controversial provisions.

The bill as finally passed was called a "compromise" because both sides gave highly publicized concessions in some key areas, but it was also called a "Christmas tree," because it was loaded with extraneous trinkets in an effort to get as many yes votes as possible. To pay for at least some of those trinkets, President Bill Clinton and the Congress collaborated to remove $2.4 billion from the District of Columbia pension trust fund, presumably on the grounds that DC residents don't get a vote in Congress anyway. Many of the extras were classic pork-barrel provisions designed to fund pet projects, but others were provisions designed to appeal to a key constituency. And one of those key constituencies was the Israel lobby.

FOREIGN AFFAIRS PROVISIONS

The foreign affairs provision that has received the most headlines is the agreement to contribute almost $18 billion toward an international replenishment of funds for IMF lending programs, provided that the IMF agrees to certain reforms. The Senate had already approved the full $18 billion, but the House had only agreed to provide $3.4 billion.

Another highly publicized item that, in fact, did not happen was the apparent agreement to fund approximately half of the back dues that the U.S. owes to the U.N. This didn't happen because it was made contingent upon the president agreeing to sign a pet project of Senate Foreign Relations committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC), the Foreign Affairs Reform Act (FARA), which Congress had passed in March and April. It had not yet been sent to Clinton for fear that he would veto it because of another provision restricting funding for family planning groups that assist women in obtaining abortions. As soon as the omnibus bill was passed, the FARA was sent to Clinton, and he promptly vetoed it. Unfortunately for the Israel lobby, that meant he also vetoed the provisions concerning Jerusalem that had been slipped into the bill, as well as other Middle East provisions that would not have advanced U.S. interests in the region. (See the May/June issue of the Washington Report for a more complete description of other Middle East-related items in the Foreign Affairs Reform Act.)

However, Senator Helms succeeded in getting his foreign affairs reform enacted anyway, because he managed to slip the reform portion into the back end of the omnibus bill. This means that the parts of the original FARA that abolished the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the U.S. Information Agency, folding their functions into the Department of State, were enacted. The Agency for International Development remains nominally independent, but its administrator will now report to the secretary of state. One Middle East-related provision from the original FARA that was retained was the section concerning claims by U.S. firms against the government of Saudi Arabia. This section requires the secretary of state to periodically report to the Congress on the specific actions taken by the State, Defense, and Commerce departments toward resolving any commercial disputes between U.S. firms and the government of Saudi Arabia.

A potentially troublesome item that made its way into the omnibus bill was the establishment of a National Commission on Terrorism. This initially was an independent bill, sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (RVA), who was an original sponsor of the anti-religious discrimination bill (see separate article, p. 45). The Terrorism Commission was folded into the House version of the foreign aid bill, and a modified version made it into the omnibus bill. …

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