WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden threw everything, including the kitchen sink, into his $2 trillion-plus “infrastructure” proposal — and that, more than any individual policy, has become the main point of friction over the plan.
The New York Times accurately reported that a Beltway battle was raging over the name: Biden calls his blueprint the American Jobs Plan; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., calls it a “Trojan horse.”
The president’s decision to combine a host of issues into a single proposal — from roads, bridges and broadband to housing tax hikes and elder care — is not unusual. It is arguably the most effective way to enact significant legislation in the modern era, and there are plenty of examples of both parties’ having stapled policies together when they have the power and the political capital to do it.
“If you look at the post-war Congresses, the practice of omnibus legislating has been pretty consistent,” said Ronald Weich, dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law, who was chief counsel to Harry Reid, D-Nev., when he was the Senate majority leader.
“The value of it is you only have to pass a bill once to get a lot of stuff done,” he said. But “the larger the bill, the less attention is paid to each aspect of the bill, and that often makes for sloppy legislating.”
As a senator, Biden sponsored an omnibus anti-crime law in 1994 that cracked down on drug offenses while implementing a decadelong ban on so-called assault weapons. Biden has reversed his position on parts of that law — including making certain drug-related crimes punishable by death — and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has criticized it heavily for creating incentives to convict and imprison more people.
Because Congress has to pass them to keep the government running, annual appropriations bills are the most common omnibus measures. But the nature of reconciliation bills, like Biden’s recently enacted Covid-19 relief and economic stimulus law, usually leads to mix-and-match policies. They are designed to effect changes to the budget by altering federal spending and taxation.
Even in its first session, back in 1789, Congress enacted a catch-all spending measure that covered defense, debts owed by the Continental Congress, reimbursements for government employees and pensions for “invalids.”
More recently, the omnibus appropriations bill that President Donald Trump signed into law shortly before he left office ran to more than 2,000 pages, included more than 30 sections. It altered federal policies on foster families, Montana water rights and carbon monoxide alarms in public housing projects, among other provisions unrelated to the continuing operation of the government.
Trump’s signature 2017 tax reconciliation law included a suite of rate cuts and credits across sectors of the economy and for families. Republicans, then in the majority on Capitol Hill, tacked on unrelated provisions to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to…