While most eyes in Washington are on the massive health care reform bills, Congress is ever so slowly making policy changes via other legislative vehicles, including the Omnibus Appropriations bill being readied for enactment before December 18. This Omnibus Appropriations bill includes six of the 13 annual spending bills the Congress must approve to keep federal agencies running, and it commits $447 billion to a variety of program increases – bringing the new spending total for non-defense, non-veterans discretionary programs to a level 85 percent higher than just two years ago.

This higher spending is coupled with major shifts on a host of values-laden issues. Many of these changes affect the District of Columbia first and foremost. For Fiscal Year 2010, the Omnibus will, for the first time since FY 1996, permits funds appropriated by Congress and derived from local revenues to be used to fund abortions in the District. Only that portion of the funds in the bill that are deemed to derive from federal sources will be unavailable to use for abortions. As a result, elective abortion will be publicly funded in the District from resources that pass through the U.S. Treasury.

The Omnibus will affect younger residents in other ways. The House-passed version of the D.C. spending bill contained a provision that blocked funds from being expended on any needle exchange programs for drug addicts within 1,000 feet of any school, day care, or youth activity center. The Omnibus omits this language and leaves discretion with local officials to bar needle exchanges at only those locations they deem inappropriate. In addition, the Omnibus includes $12.2 million to fund students in the FY 2010 opportunity scholarship program, which allows recipients to escape deteriorating and dangerous schools and attend a school of their parents’ choice, but new student scholarships are barred, ensuring that the program will die.

Finally, the bill will allow the same “non-federal” component of Congressional appropriations for D.C. to be used to implement a medical marijuana program. It will also permit any appropriated funds to be used to provide health and other potential benefits to domestic partners in the city, a step that will diminish the protections enjoyed by traditional marriage under the law.

The portion of the bill devoted to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) increases the agency’s funding by 8.5 percent over last year, but the $6.3 billion increase had no room to retain even $1 dollar for abstinence funding while it made another $110 million available to fund the already richly endowed comprehensive, contraceptive-based approach to adolescent sexuality. HHS also gets new authority to fund needle exchange programs for users of injectable drugs unless localities object.

The bill makes $55 million available to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which had been withheld by President Bush due to continued concerns over the UNFPA’s involvement in China’s coercive one-child per family policy. Thankfully, the Omnibus does omit a Senate-backed initiative to permanently end President Reagan’s “Mexico City” policy, which President Obama overturned by executive order last January. Under the Reagan policy, the United States had restricted its international family planning funding to agencies that agree not to provide or promote abortion overseas. The effort led by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) to permanently allow these funds to flow to agencies that provide and promote abortions internationally is blunted by the Omnibus.

Omnibus spending bills remain a prime vehicle for enacting major spending increases and obscuring policy changes with few record votes and little accountability for individual members of Congress. Small policy changes are once again making huge differences in the vitality of civil society and the protection of core values like marriage, parental rights, and local governance.

Read “Revenge of the Dirty Dozen.”