Opinion

The omnibus oligarchy

America's legislative process has turned into government by the few

Congress is closing out 2020 with another omnibus bill, this one valued north of $2 trillion and including a second, smaller round of pandemic relief checks and ... well, who really knows? The legislation is almost 5,600 pages long. I haven't read it. I'd be surprised if any single person is aware of all its contents. It's the sort of bill where the public (and many members of Congress) will still be learning about its contents months hence.

Indeed, the vast majority of legislators saw the bill mere hours before they had to vote on it. "Congress is expected to vote on the second largest bill in U.S. history today," tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Monday, "and as of about 1 p.m., members don't even have the legislative text of it yet." In a quote tweet of the AOC post, Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) took the critique a step further: "We have an oligarchy disguised as a representative democracy," he said.

He's right. The way omnibus bills move through our Congress and determine so much of federal policy is functionally oligarchic.

Our constitutional form of government is not oligarchic, of course. It started off republican, trended democratic over the decades, and has remained ostensibly representative throughout. But insofar as a large portion of substantive lawmaking — i.e. the bills that do real things, not the ones that rename post offices or express toothless disapproval of whatever the president is getting up to — increasingly happens through omnibus legislation, "oligarchy" is apt. It means rule by a small number of powerful and often (though not necessarily) wealthy people. With omnibuses, that's what we have.

Consider how this omnibus bill, like others before it, was developed. It didn't happen the way we're taught in civics class, where prudent legislators listen to their constituents, then gather to debate and discuss, offer amendments and hash out their differences in committee and on the congressional floor. It happened behind closed doors, negotiated by a small selection of officials from each house of Congress and the White House.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was involved, as were the majority and minority leaders of both houses. Democratic whip Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.) played a role, as did his GOP counterpart, Sen. John Thune (S.D.), plus Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who sits on the COVID-19 Congressional Oversight Commission. No doubt some other members had input, via their committee assignments, on some portions of the bill. (Congrats, I guess, if you happen to live in a state or district where the person supposedly representing you got 15 minutes at the omnibus oligarchs' table.) All told, it's glaringly evident that the executive branch plays a pseudo-legislative part while a mere fraction of our actual legislators have any significant say.

This is a relatively new dynamic. As recently as the 1990s, the congressional habit was to pass around a dozen appropriations bills to fund the government each year. The 1980s saw a short-lived trend of consolidation into omnibus packages, but a more sustained pattern began in 1996 and has continued since. President Trump swore off signing omnibuses in 2018, but it was a short-lived opposition to a format often deemed regrettable but inescapable.

So now we have a 5,600-page plan to spend more than $2 trillion, which is about one dollar in every 10 of our estimated GDP for 2020. One law spending a tenth of all the money our whole country made this year — and maybe a dozen people are meaningfully involved in deciding where it goes. That's oligarchy.

And it's not even oligarchy for the sake of emergency. These negotiations have been going on for weeks and weeks — remember, Trump was talking in early fall about getting a second set of relief checks out before the election. The omnibus approach is presented as a concession to efficiency, but that's hardly credible with timelines like these. "Congressional leaders could have put a bill on the floor in the spring, allowed members of Congress to vote on amendments for weeks, to the point of total exhaustion," as Amash observed, "and still gotten a relief bill finished months ago." Instead, as he added, there were no amendment votes for this bill (Pelosi, like former House Majority Leader Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), typically doesn't allow them unless pre-approved). It was entirely crafted by that small group of House, Senate, and White House oligarchs.

It's true that these bills, once finished in private talks, are fast-tracked through committee and typically rushed to just one vote. But speed is not the main perceived advantage. That honor goes to guaranteed results. It is very rare for an omnibus bill to fail; per one analysis published in the American Journal of Political Science, more than 98 percent of omnibus bills become law.

Omnibus legislation is successful because it has everything. The incentive of the procedure is to make these bills very broadly palatable by giving both sets of party leadership whatever appropriations they want. And instead of considering each item as a separate bill or amendment, legislators are forced to do one up or down vote on the whole thing. They don't know what all's in there, but they certainly know about the headline items whose failure could get them tossed out of office.

Thus, generally, they vote "yes." Omnibus bills are too big to fail and too big to veto, which enables party leadership to wield power even with divided government, narrow and rapidly shifting majorities, and internal party division. It also creates a Congress within the Congress, this oligarchic group empowered to dictate the small range of ideas given a real hearing in our legislature — ideas that overwhelmingly come from longstanding members with high leadership rank and, often, secure seats in strong partisan districts (e.g. Pelosi in deep blue San Francisco).

The final House vote on this week's bill was 359 to 53. The final Senate vote was 92 to 6. Trump has raised objections, but if historical patterns hold, he'll sign this or have his veto overridden.

Another omnibus is on the way. The oligarchs have spoken.

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