Omnibus can be translated as providing for many things at the same time, and an omnibus bill is one that usually has a main subject (like a budget) but that concurrently may address many other subjects. For instance a budget bill could amend laws or institute new laws, and even if the primary subject is the budget, it could contain various other features such as “pork” or appropriations for special projects.
In the 1970s, the US Congress changed some of the ways that they budgeted and one method that was increasingly adopted was to take all aspects of a yearly federal budget for all the different departments and lump them together. It takes less time to discuss, vote on and pass a single omnibus bill than it would to try to vote on bills for each of the major departments.
This business of passing an omnibus bill for spending remains a popular one, though there are some inherent problems with it. An omnibus bill can be huge and it can have items “buried” in it that people, such as voters, may not discover until well after the bill passes. As the bill gains recognition as one that might pass, wheeling and dealing over fine elements of it do tend to add extra laws, amendments or extra spending in order to guarantee passage, and this can frustrate the original writers.
In the late 2000s, there have been multiple requests for “clean bills,” that is, those that don’t have extra features attached to them. However, even with these requests, certain amounts of extra spending do accompany many spending bills. This was the case with the passage of a $410 Billion US Dollar (USD) spending bill signed into law in 2009 by President Obama. Some critics wanted the president to veto the bill because it contained about $8 billion USD in pork or additional appropriations.
Similarly, the $700 billion bank bailout bill passed in late 2008 contained very disparate elements. For instance, one aspect of the bill approved amendments to the previous US Mental Health Parity Act, passing a new act that will require insurance companies that offer mental health insurance to do so on an equal standing with their coverage for other medical insurance. Though these changes to insurance law had many supporters, it’s unclear why it was attached to a bailout bill, except that it did gain passage this way. It’s inclusion in the bailout bill and many other features of the bill made this an omnibus bill.
Though the use of omnibus bill is mostly related to the above definition of joining together disparate elements, buses that carry people can also be called omnibuses, and this is almost a better metaphor for thinking of these bills. A bus begins with a few passengers, and gathers more at each of its stops, occasionally leaving a passenger or two off at various locations. The nature of the omnibus bill is very much like this; the bill picks up more passengers (amendments, appropriations, laws) and leaves off a few before it ultimately is passed. At the end of the road, when such a bill is passed by a legislative body it is a “busload” of laws, ideas, and spending, that can be greatly complicated and that contains many elements each unique from one another.