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Big bills hide devilish details


WASHINGTON - It doesn't matter much whether you liked the budget that President Bush presented to Congress last month or didn't. The spending plan is going to be changed a lot by Congress, and, in the end, it likely will be hard to tell just what was decided.

Members of Congress will push a long list of pet measures this year. But barely any of the significant proposals will pass unless they're consolidated into a few large packages known as omnibus bills.

This time-honored - and increasingly used - device means that members often don't have a chance to vote on individual policies that could affect their constituents. Lawmakers are forced to cast an all-or-nothing vote - often without reading the text - on many proposals at once.

Critics say the omnibus trend reduces accountability and results in policies that could not withstand public scrutiny if voted on separately.

"We're headed toward the ultimate Christmas-tree approach here, where you might as well wrap all of the functions and programs of government and all the changes you want to make in law and policy into one must-pass bill," said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat. "You could certainly save a lot of time and effort. Congress could meet for a couple of days a year and be done with it. It is a really crummy way to run the government."

Last month's release of President Bush's budget was the first step in a long budget and appropriations process. The government doles out annual spending in 13 separate appropriations bills, but recent history indicates that many of those will be bundled into an omnibus bill.

Advocates of controlled government spending say omnibus legislation allows members to pass costly projects and policies that wouldn't withstand public scrutiny if passed individually.

Last year's American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 initially was proposed to amend the tax code to avert a trade crisis with Europe. Legislators attached so many other tax-related proposals that it grew to 821 pages. It passed shortly before Congress adjourned to campaign for the November election.

"That became a very large Christmas tree with a lot of painful needles on it," said Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union.

Jeff Kosseff writes for the Newhouse News Service in Washington.

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