Lawmakers use omnibus bill to block funding as well as provide it

In this June 2, 2015, photo, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. She and other lawmakers use appropriations bills to block certain projects and programs.
In this June 2, 2015, photo, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. She and other lawmakers use appropriations bills to block certain projects and programs. AP

The omnibus spending bill set for approval Friday freezes out some politically frail California projects.

Forget about plotting an irrigation drain for San Joaquin Valley farms. The omnibus, like many funding bills before it, prohibits spending even a penny on planning a drain’s destination.

Ditto proposals for siphoning water stored beneath the Southern California desert. The bill once again blocks the Interior Department from considering a private company’s plan for tapping groundwater or using federal land near the Mojave National Preserve.

It turns out that the 2,009-page omnibus package is important for more than the trillion reasons most people count. Beyond the $1.1 trillion it provides to keep the government running through next September, the sprawling measure prohibits federal spending on an array of programs.

“There are tendencies and efforts each year to impact public policy through the purse strings,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said Thursday, while adding that he considers it inappropriate to use funding bills to restrict policies.

By closing as well as opening the purse, lawmakers have long flexed the power granted them under the Constitution, and the omnibus is stuffed with what some dub “negative earmarks.” These are provisions in which Congress effectively says no funds may be used for a particular purpose.

No federal funds, for instance, can be used to promote the sale or export of tobacco or tobacco products. No funds can be used to close a Farm Service Agency county office, such as the 33 open in California. Federal employees can forget about flying first class.

The Internal Revenue Service cannot spend money making videos, unless it gets an editorial board’s go-ahead. The Treasury Department cannot spend money redesigning the $1 bill.

It’s a normal legislative tool. We write a check, so we have some say in how it’s going to be used.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.

And definitely, the omnibus declares on page 344, no Defense Department funds shall be used to pay “for entertainment that includes topless or nude entertainers or participants.”

Often, the prohibitions carry over with little public controversy from year to year. The omnibus’s ban on spending Interior Department funds on the Southern California desert aquifer project, for one, continues a policy first put in place in December 2007.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and other opponents of the Cadiz Co.’s long-simmering groundwater proposal say they’re worried about the depletion of an invaluable natural resource.

The restrictive language bans spending federal funds “in relation to any proposal to store water underground for the purpose of export, for approval of any right-of-way or similar authorization on the Mojave National Preserve” or nearby public lands.

“It’s not the only way to affect policy, but certainly from an appropriator’s standpoint, it’s certainly one of the most effective,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, said of funding cutoffs in general Thursday, adding that “if you can’t spend the money, you can’t do the activity.”

Another long-standing prohibition involving California water – banning use of funds to “determine the final point of discharge for the interceptor drain” serving the San Joaquin Valley’s west side farms – dates back even longer. The ban, summoning memories of the irrigation-tainted Kesterson Reservoir in the mid-1980s, protects the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“It’s never been raised as an issue that I should be concerned about or tracking,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., said of the annual prohibition language Thursday, adding that “it’s one of these legacies that get carried forward.”

Current events, though, can sometimes cause turbulence for even long-standing prohibitions.

In 1996, for instance, an Arkansas Republican inserted language effectively blocking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting research into gun violence. Though the former congressman, Jay Dickey, has since called for resuming CDC research, the omnibus continues the ban.

“No one can offer one good reason to keep this ban in place,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. “This rider has prohibited experts at the CDC from reaching the causes and best ways to prevent gun violence for nearly 20 years.”

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10