We encourage all citizens to look at the bipartisan federal omnibus spending bill enacted last week: not to read it, of course, because you can’t. It’s 2,232 pages long, and most pages contain obscure, unfathomable references to other legislation.
But a mere glance at a few pages of any section of the bill will, we believe, give you a powerful sense of the sad futility of the current budget and appropriations processes of our federal government. Like a latter-day Thelma and Louise facing a cliff of financial apocalypse, Democrats and Republicans have held hands, abandoned caution and gunned the nation’s T-bird forward with pedal-to-the-metal spending. Now the citizens in the backseat are only left to wonder how far the flagging desert winds will carry us before we meet the canyon floor.
Due to our interest in education, we focused on Section 2, Division H, Title 3 of the bill: the appropriations section for the Department of Education. Within those 33 pages, we observed absurdities which serve as a microcosm of the entire omnibus.
First, though, a review of the macro-level insanity is in order. The bill text was released last Wednesday night, passed by the House and Senate by Thursday night, and signed by President Trump on Friday. No one read it or even claims to have read it, although Rand Paul did a commendable job of trying to get through the first 600 pages prior to the Senate’s consideration.
In the context of over $20 trillion of rapidly growing federal debt (which some argue is closer to $100 trillion, given our entitlement obligations) and rising interest rates (which threaten an existential debt crisis with each uptick), the omnibus bill prescribes $1.3 trillion of spending. Generally, the bill expands budgets of programs across the board, including large increases for defense, homeland security, transportation, labor, and other domestic programs.
The Department of Education is a big winner also, as its budget grows by almost 4% to a total of $71 billion. As with the rest of the bill, a cursory review of this section stuns the reader with the way huge numbers are disbursed and dispersed without any accountability: for example, in a single sentence on page 995, Washington DC’s Howard University is granted $232 million for “partial support.”
But we were especially interested in other oddities in the Education section which seem to characterize the mess of the omnibus overall.
Intricate layers of statutory references
The bill approriates large sums with so many tortuous statutory references that it’s hard not to conclude that the intent is to hide the end results of expenditures. Consider, for example, how far you can get with this section, ironically titled “Innovation and Improvement,” which provides a 21-line puzzle allocating roughly a billion dollars.
One sentence, five colons. Any questions?
Bizarre micromanagement within epic appropriations
To its credit, the above example does at least seem to align chunks of money with specific statutory applications, albeit in a ridiculously obscure way. Elsewhere in the bill, we see many examples of what could be called “penny wise” budgeting, where millions or billions of dollars are granted with a single clause, only to be followed by peculiar nit-picking about tiny percentages within those sums.
For example, of the $1.8 billion allocated in the section on Career, Technical, and Adult education (page 992), .7% are specifically earmarked “for national leadership activities under section 242.” Why the unique callout for such a small percentage of funds? We’re not sure which lobbyist to ask.
But an even stranger stipulation appears on page 998, where some of the general administrative funds are set for the Department of Education. Within this $430 million block, there’s a remarkable comment about transportation:
OK, bureaucrats: here’s $430 million to spend. But whatever you do, make sure you only get three passenger vehicles!
Prohibitions against reform
With a fitting juxtaposition, this same page about the Department’s budget immediately transitions into an explicit prohibition of any reform. In an apparent response to concerns that Secretary Betsy DeVos might streamline the department through changes in its budget office, the bill restricts funds from being used for “any activity relating to implementing a reorganization that decentralizes, reduces the staffing level, or alters the responsibilities, structure, authority, or functionality of the Budget Service of the Department of Education.”
Huge administrative costs
In addition to the general $430 million administrative block mentioned above, specific department functions receive their own administrative funds. To administer $24 billion in allotted student aid (and, we presume, to continue marketing student debt like a beer ad) the department receives $1.7 billion. Meanwhile, the Office of Civil Rights wins an $8.5 million increase in its budget (to $117 million), while the department’s Office of the Inpector General (whose purpose is to fight waste, fraud, and abuse) will feather its nest with an operating budget of $61 million.
$71 billion. It’s quite a lot of money for a bureaucracy which didn’t even exist 40 years ago.