Can we pass Congress 101?

The U.S. Capitol building is seen in Washington on Oct 1, 2013.
The U.S. Capitol building is seen in Washington on Oct 1, 2013. 

For our do-nothing Congress, here's what constitutes a major legislative victory these days: A spending bill that actually funds all parts of the government for more than a few months at a time, incrementally changing the status quo by attending to some of the wounds that Congress single-handedly inflicted upon the country.

It's the first time in three years that Congress has put together a detailed, long-term spending bill, marking an end to the stopgap budgets and fiscal brinksmanship that have consumed lawmakers since 2011. The omnibus bill funds the government for the next two years, fleshing out the budget blueprint that Congress passed in December, and would avert a government shutdown when the current stopgap budget expires this week. 

But the small scale of December's budget deal gave appropriators little maneuvering room to make major changes to federal spending. They had a little more discretionary money to dole out—4.5% more than the government spent in 2013—but only had enough to reverse about a third of the automatic, across-the board cuts known as sequestration. With bitter partisan fights continuing to deadlock Congress, they had little incentive to rock the boat by dramatically increasing or decreasing spending.

"I went into the process with the idea that what I wanted was a benign bill," House Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers told reporters on Monday, according to TIME. "A bill that would fund the government adequately, that would not have any earthshaking changes, and I think that’s what we have."

A handful of programs did receive a major funding boost under the spending bill. Head Start got a 13% increase in funding—$1 billion more than its current funding levels—which Democrats hailed as a significant victory. A transportation grant program known as TIGER saw a 20% increase, raising its total funding to $200 million. Federal workers also got a 1% pay increase after years of pay freezes and cuts, and a cut to military pensions was undone, despite being held upjust weeks earlier as real entitlement reform

There were also some real losers as well. The bill cuts funding for the Internal Revenue Service to below Fiscal Year 2009 levels, after the agency raised ire among Republicans for heightening scrutiny of conservative groups. Most of the cuts to the Department of Homeland Security fell to the Transportation Security Administration, another conservative target. House Republicans also celebrated a cut to the EPA, heralding a 20% decrease in funding for the agency since 2010.

But the vast majority of the changes were small-scale attempts to undo the damage that Congress inflicted upon government programs, mitigating some of the worst effects of sequestration without going so far as to undo them entirely. The bill restores some funding to the USDA, Title I school funding, low-income heating assistance, and the National Institutes of Health, but all their funding levels are still below what they would be without sequestration. And the bill leaves sequestration completely intact from 2016 through 2022—a $110 billion annual reduction that was originally meant to force a big, bipartisan deficit reduction deal.

"Appropriations did the best they could with what they were given, and they're still not given very much," says Emily Holubowich, a health-care lobbyist and founder of NDD United, which advocates for domestic spending. 

The lack of dramatic, controversial changes are likely to help smooth the way for the omnibus, which the House and the Senate are expected to take up this week. Outside conservative groups are already railing against the spending bill, but the reaction on the Hill has been more muted as many Republicans are eager to avoid a replay of October's shutdown. "We’re not going to stop the process mid-year," GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions, who voted against the December budget deal, told the National Journal. Democratic leaders and the White House are lining up behind the agreement. 

If the omnibus passes without event this week, legislators and Hill-watchers alike will herald Congress for a return to normalcy. It will certainly be a departure from how members have operated for the past three years, lurching from one manufactured fiscal crisis to the next as they insisted on coming to a long-term deficit reduction deal that never actually happened. 

But the omnibus also show just how low expectations have fallen. "The Omnibus will fulfill the basic duty of Congress; it provides funding for every aspect of the federal government, from our national defense, to our transportation systems, to the education of our kids,” Rogers said in a statement. In otherwise, Capitol Hill might finally pass Congress 101.