A Way to End Gridlock: Act Incrementally

Omnibus bills contain so many diverse elements that they overwhelm the legislative process

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 process.

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. No different was the reaction to the president's information superhighway program: too much, too fast, all at once.

An incremental approach to issues, large and small, gives people and legislators a sense of participation and greater satisfaction with the outcome. It is no accident that bills introduced in Congress are, on average, only 10 pages long.

This approach addresses today's angry political mood. Many voters feel insecure economically and adrift. They want change yet are frightened by too much change. They want to pick and choose and have issues dealt with in terms they understand.

Omnibus bills give opponents a road map to sidetrack an overstuffed bill. By attacking certain provisions in the crime bill, the Republicans came close to killing a bill that the public otherwise supported. If the crime bill had been handled in packages of separate measures dealing with different aspects of crime, public unease could have been allayed - and the Republican assault effectively blunted. The key provisions could not have been held hostage by those for which public support was shaky.

Some of the most notable achievements of Congress have been the results of an incremental approach to policymaking. We learned that lesson well with civil rights and Social Security reform. Step-by-step action on those issues produced solid progress over time and eventually brought landmark results. Congress tackled civil rights over an 11-year period, beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1957, followed by more significant changes in 1960, 1964, 1965, and 1968. The history of Social Security is similar. Coverage was expanded and fiscal integrity maintained over four decades of change.

Omnibus legislation reflects the ongoing conflict between the marketing of political ideas and the formation of national policies and programs. An idea provides instant gratification; the legislative process does not. It is dangerous and ultimately self-destructive for Congress or the president to try to create a national consensus through grandstanding chunks of legislation. It is time to relegate omnibus bills to the legislative dustbin and achieve results one step at a time. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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