Why the terrible, awful, nobody-likes-it spending bill could be a good thing

The Senate passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill Saturday, avoiding a government shutdown. Both liberals and conservatives dislike the bill, but that could be its charm.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky walks to the Senate floor during a series of votes at the US Capitol in Washington Saturday. The Senate on Saturday passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill that averts a looming federal government shutdown.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said for the spending bill that passed Congress Saturday is that no one likes it.

On one hand, no one likes much of anything coming from Congress these days. But this is a different kind of dislike. This isn't an anger at partisan theatrics and brinksmanship, though there was plenty of that to go around.

In some ways, this is an anger that something actually got done.

Let's not sugar-coat this. The $1.1 trillion spending bill passed by the Senate Saturday and the House earlier in the week won't win any beauty contests. Yes, it averts a government shutdown, but there's plenty to dislike, and not simply for partisan point-scoring.

Rich folks can now put even more money into political campaigns, and the bill neuters one important attempt to rein in risky bank behavior in the wake of the Great Recession. That makes liberals fume. Meanwhile, it does little to hold President Obama to account for taking unilateral executive action to delay deportation of more than 4 million undocumented immigrants. That makes conservatives mad.

But each of those distasteful choices was not random. In fact, each was carefully chosen by both Democrats and Republicans through months of negotiations. Years ago, setting priorities and making difficult choices is what was known as legislating.

In that way, this spending bill could be a positive sign.

Of all the many changes that have swept Congress during the past 20 years, one of the least talked about outside Washington is how Congress actually does its job. This bill was a bit of a throwback. It was built the old-fashioned way – by appropriators making tough tradeoffs in back-room talks.

More recently, however, party leaders have taken over that process, cutting out the back-room negotiations. This has sped things up and has given leadership more control, but the tough tradeoffs have been avoided because, well, they're tough. The result is that the minority party has little voice in budget-making and is expected simply to take its lumps.

For his part, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, who will become majority leader in January, has said he wants to take the Senate back to the old way of doing things – which, in Congress-speak, is called "regular order." On Friday, Daniel Newhauser and Sarah Mimms of The National Journal wrote:

This is what McConnell has been talking about: returning to regular order and allowing the committees to do their work. The only reason that the omnibus was able to pass the House, and is likely to pass the Senate, is that it is a carefully crafted compromise bill. Appropriators, both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, spent months haggling over every last detail before presenting the package to members. The final omnibus bill has the fingerprints of not just a few members of leadership, but dozens of members from all sides of the political spectrum.

Could the terrible, awful, nobody-likes-it spending bill passed by Congress last week (and now heading to Mr. Obama for an expected signature) be a turning point for Congress?

Perhaps not. Two factors forced lawmakers' hands in this case: The coming holiday recess (they wanted to get out of town), and potentially catastrophic political consequences if they did nothing (a government shutdown that almost no one wants).

Those variables come together only rarely.

But getting the budget process right would be a big achievement, and last week appeared to be at least a small step.

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