By Mark Strand and Timothy Lang

Almost three weeks have passed since the beginning of fiscal year 2012, but Congressional leaders are still hashing out the details on how they will fund the government until the end of next September. Congressional newspapers are reporting that leaders are considering bills called “minibuses” to pass the new appropriations legislation.

As the name implies, a minibus bill is very similar to an omnibus (which we covered in a previous blog post). The difference lies primarily in the scope of the legislation: An omnibus will include a larger number of the appropriation measures, while a minibus will only encompass a handful. If that definition seems imprecise, that is because it is. One Congressional Research Service Report, The Congressional Appropriations Process: An Introduction, by Sandy Streeter, notes, “There is no agreed upon definition of omnibus appropriations measure, but the term minibus appropriations measure has sometimes been used to refer to a measure including only a few regular appropriations bills, while omnibus appropriations measure refers to a measure containing several regular bills.”

If an individual appropriation bill is the ideal, then perhaps the minibus is a lesser evil than an omnibus.  It is not as good as the regular order for fully considering appropriation bills, but not as bad as trying to pass the entire national discretionary budget in a thousand page document that nobody reads, is lightly debated, and often contains all manner of fiscal mischief.

At this point, the Senate has advanced legislation in the form of a minibus, Roll Call is reporting. This form of legislation has actually enjoyed some measure of bipartisan support. Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have advocated this strategy this year. Senator Lamar Alexander, Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that after the individual appropriation bills, “the next best thing is…minibuses”.

The benefits and defects of minibuses are similar to those of the omnibuses and regular appropriation bills. Some prefer minibuses because they allow for more scrutiny of the provisions than omnibuses do. Additionally, more Members are able to participate in the development of such legislation, one of the reasons Senator McConnell is supporting minibuses. On the other hand, having to pass a few different minibuses opens the Congress up to a number of different fiscal battles, and leadership must work harder to defend their priorities (recall, as mentioned in our post on omnibus bills, that the more all-encompassing a spending bill is, the harder it is for a Member to vote against it or for the President to veto it).

As of now, it is unclear as to how Congress will settle on spending for the year. House Speaker John Boehner has said that he has been “reluctant to even consider the idea of an omnibus,” Roll Call is reporting. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has expressed essentially the same opinion, but has indicated that the Congress must ultimately make good on the spending levels it set earlier this year to show that “the process can work”.

Congress has just under a month to settle the matter before the current funding expires. For now, it seems that any way they appropriate money for the government will be sub-optimal, at best. Generally, the smaller the bill, the greater the accountability.  So if Congress cannot pass individual appropriation bills, the minibuses may be better than one big, massive omnibus appropriation.

Progress?  Maybe, but not exactly something to stand up and cheer about.