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Governments and corporations have “years” for which they budget that may not track the calendar that we use to envision “a year.” In other words, rather than view a year in terms of “January 1 to December 31, governments and businesses routinely use what are referred to as “fiscal years.” Fiscal years are used, as the name suggests, primarily for budgeting and accounting purposes. For the United States Government, fiscal years begin on October 1, and end on 30 September, every year. Very often – actually, every year – Congress, which is vested by the U.S. Constitution with the authority to enact budgets, misses its deadline to pass all of the required spending bills necessary to keep the federal government operating. In short, every September 30, Congress fails to have passed the 12 appropriations bills necessary to ensure that all federal agencies are funded for the following fiscal year. These appropriations bills are each designated for individual federal agencies, for example, the annual defense appropriations bill provides funding for the Department of Defense, the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development bill provides funding for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, the Interior and Environment appropriations bill funds the Department of the Interior, and so on. Failure to pass these bills means that, on October 1, the start of the next fiscal year, the agencies for which the bills have not been passed must shut down, or be funded by what is called “a Continuing Resolution,” which buy time for Congress to eventually pass those bills, but under the levels of spending authorized for the previous fiscal year, meaning, in general, lower levels of funding because inflation is not taken into account.
Occasionally, when Congress begins to feel pressure from the White House and the public to pass these bills and avoid a government shut-down, the leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives (under the Constitution, appropriations bills must originate in the House of Representatives) agree to bundle the remaining bills and pass them as one large bill – an omnibus bill. An “omnibus bill,” then, is multiple bills folded into one for the purpose of expediting passage of all the outstanding legislation. Omnibus bills, because they are so large, and include so many items, invariably become vehicles for individual members of Congress to try and squeeze into them items important to their states or districts that did not make into earlier bills. The hope is that these items, called “earmarks,” will not be noticed because they will be lost in the mass that is the omnibus bill, and that an overwhelming majority of members of Congress will agree to accept everything in these bills as a way of simply getting the essential, underlying appropriations bills passed so that they can wrap up their work and go home.
A recent example of an omnibus appropriations bill is discussed in the link below to a report by Congressional Quarterly, a publication that follows Congress and publishes weekly and annual reports on legislative matters, including tracking every appropriations bill from its introduction to final passage. Another example, from a more distant past, is the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, or COBRA. The reason COBRA remains relevant is because it included a provision that allows workers who have been fired from their jobs or otherwise separated from their place of employment to retain their health insurance that had been provided by their place of employment for up to 18 months, although the former employee would be responsible for a larger percentage of the premium.
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