I am @cromnibus: The story behind Twitter’s latest obsession

How a bill becomes a meme.

 

Eric Geller

Internet Culture

Published Dec 11, 2014   Updated May 30, 2021, 12:16 am CDT

Twitter

Politics is serious business. Twitter is often exactly the opposite. When politics and Twitter meet, the results are unpredictable—and sometimes amazing.

One of the most fascinating developments in Political Twitter this week was the emergence of the account @cromnibus, the online persona of a compromise spending bill called the Cromnibus, which Congress drafted, reporters pondered, and the American people—depending on their ideology—anticipated with either dread or apathy.

Unlike the Cromnibus itself, @cromnibus became a modest hit with Twitter’s politically minded users. Here are some of the account’s 400-plus followers:

  • Superstar conservative pundit Michelle Malkin

  • Michael Steel, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)’s press secretary

  • Evangeline George, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)’s press secretary

  • Amanda Carpenter, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas)’s communications director

  • Jen Hing, the communications director for the House Appropriations Committee

  • The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget

These big-name Twitter politicos are mixed in with lobbyists, congressional aides, and what seems like half of the Washington press corps. In short, the account is temporarily enjoying “BFD” status, as Vice President Joe Biden would put it.

Almost as soon as it began to take off, people began wondering who was behind @cromnibus.

Today, I am here to answer this question: I am cromnibus.

To paraphrase Nine Days, this is the story of a bill.

What is the “cromnibus,” anyway?

The word “cromnibus,” like the bill itself, is a combination of two concepts: a continuing resolution (CR), which is a temporary means of extending funding for government departments and agencies; and an omnibus bill, a collection of appropriations bills for different parts of the government. Normally, the House and Senate would pass appropriations bills, negotiate over differences, turn the bills into an omnibus package, and send the package to the president for his signature. Instead, in recent years, Congress has relied on continuing resolutions that avoid major budgetary negotiations for the sake of political expediency.

The reason the cromnibus exists at all is because of the Republican Party’s political strategy in the aftermath of President Obama’s executive action on immigration. Republicans want to fund most of the government for the full fiscal year to avoid a shutdown, but they want funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees immigration services, to expire in February. This would allow them to negotiate anew with the president over his executive action and possibly win a concession from him in exchange for continued DHS funding.

To this end, the Republican leadership created the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015, better known as the cromnibus. It funds the non-DHS parts of the government through next September (in the style of an omnibus bill) and DHS through February (in the style of a continuing resolution). Come February, the two parties will be locked in budget battle once again.

As I discovered operating @cromnibus, conservatives view the hybrid bill strategy as more of a punt than a plan—but we’ll get to all that in a minute. First, let’s talk about building a brand for a bill.

What is @cromnibus all about?

The cromnibus knows he’s hot stuff. Everyone in Washington has an opinion on him. Consequently, he needs a strong sense of who he is to ward off attacks from his critics.

The cromnibus isn’t a radical purist. He embraces the fact that he’s a dirty solution that won’t please everyone. He’s an obsessive centrist—proud of his half-measures and hopeful that those split-the-baby decisions will see him through to the president’s desk.

The cromnibus considers himself a hero in Washington’s polarized political culture. He’s going to get that presidential signature no matter how many enemies he makes along the way. The country needs him.

In some of @cromnibus’ other tweets, you can see his sense of civic duty shining through. He won’t apologize for the hectic nature of his rollout or the messiness of his composition.

As I got into more character, I hit on the idea of giving @cromnibus a genuine earnestness. We all remember the infectious optimism of the bill from Schoolhouse Rock. That’s part of what I tried to capture with the cromnibus account, which, after all, took its profile picture from its television predecessor.

Of course, we all experience moments of self-doubt.

On Tuesday night, as word spread that the cromnibus was almost ready for its debut, I tweeted this burst of earnestness and got some of my best engagement. People liked to imagine a bill straightening its tie and squaring its shoulders as it practiced its opening sentence for the big reveal. It made the bill seem human, and however ludicrous that sounds, it’s undeniably endearing.

In addition to topical references, I also built out @cromnibus’ personality with generic legislation-related musings.

That last tweet really took off. I assume it’s because it played on the same earnest anthropomorphism that gave @cromnibus its quirky reputation.

I soon discovered that I was popular across the political and professional spectrum. By far my biggest constituency, however, was Media Twitter.

Journalists love distractions

The press love a fight, but in the leadup to a fight, when the battle lines have yet to be drawn, the press get antsy. How do you cover a bill when there’s no bill yet? For several days, but especially in the hours before the bill’s Tuesday-night release, @cromnibus gave policy reporters a fun way to pass the time. Before there was a real cromnibus, there was the @cromnibus account, keeping journalists entertained with witty remarks and conversation.

One of my first engagements with Media Twitter came thanks to Seung Min Kim, a congressional reporter for Politico.

Kim’s tweet exposed me to the broader network of political and policy reporters anticipating the release of the cromnibus.

Soon, other reporters were interacting with me and contributing to the cromnibus’ cult of personality.

(Journalists love legislative maneuver jokes!)

(As anyone who knows me will tell you, I relish the chance to make puns.)

When a snafu with the rollout occurred, delaying the bill’s release, journalists unexpectedly needed more distractions—and the cromnibus was there for them.

(I had hoped this tweet would take off because of the Rules Committee pun. Alas.)

This joke, on the other hand, led to one of my best-performing tweets. When you see who retweeted and favorited it, you’ll understand why.

That’s right: Most of the engagement on this tweet came from Politico journalists. Remember the cardinal rule of Media Twitter: Journalists love talking about themselves. (You’ll note that I’m doing that exact thing right now.)

By the end of the evening, @cromnibus was a bona-fide Media Twitter darling.

These interactions would continue after the cromnibus was finalized and released.

Imagining life in the Capitol

Once @cromnibus had a personality and a modest following, I had to give my audience the inside scoop—or some twisted version of it—on congressional deliberations. I tried to imagine what the year’s most important spending bill might experience as it wound its way through the legislative process. Who would it meet? What would it see? Where would it sleep overnight? What did it do while revisions were underway? What did it think about all the excitement? What is it like to live in the Capitol building while the world waits to meet you?

Here are some highlights from @cromnibus’ journal of Hill life.

This was one of the first times I used real politicians’ names. I tried to select people who were one step below mainstream fame so it would feel more like a humdrum political diary. The Cromnibus won’t be running into the best-known senators every day, after all.

Of course, the problem with using real people is that your fantasy narrative suddenly becomes subject to actual events. On one occasion, I had to improvise to cover up a mistake.

As important as it was to rely on second- and third-tier political figures for verisimilitude, I always had fun name-dropping top-tier talent, such as members of the congressional leadership, because it gave my humor a broader reach.

You’ll notice that my jokes were bipartisan. It was very important that @cromnibus not become a polarizing account. I didn’t want to alienate 50 percent of my potential groupies. I stuck to generic statements and lightly mocked members of both parties. The @cromnibus was far more concerned with seeing the light of day than throwing shade on politicians. (As we’ll see later, most of my non-journalist engagement came from conservatives who opposed me. The fact that they were engaging with their “foe” only made it more important that I keep my persona as inoffensive as possible.)

Mr. Cromnibus Goes To Washington

I sort of figured I would be popular with Media Twitter after my first few journalist follows. One of the pleasant surprises of this whole thing was watching people outside the media—political aides, representatives from trade organizations, members of business lobbies, and staff members at advocacy groups—glommed onto the @cromnibus hype as a way of advancing their agenda.

https://twitter.com/MattVallone/status/543039507701182464

https://twitter.com/danholler/status/542305377732542465

(Oh the irony.)

Grassroots conservatives hated me

Well, not me, per se, but rather, the cromnibus. This bill was a Republican gambit to delay their confrontation with the president over immigration while reassuring the conservative base that they’d confront them eventually. With the cromnibus, the Republican congressional leadership had opted not to stick it to President Obama with a hard-line spending bill—one that, for example, stripped funding from DHS unless Obama reversed his executive action.

The Heritage Foundation’s political action arm urged House Republicans to vote against the bill (more on the result of that vote later), calling it “a blank check for amnesty.” I think you can guess how grassroots conservatives responded when I appeared on the scene.

(This person complained to a congresswoman about the cromnibus and included me in the tweet! That’s how I knew I’d made it as an online political force.)

https://twitter.com/NotOnThisWatch/status/542722556055142400

I got some docile engagement from partisans as well, including these nice chats:

The aftermath

The House Rules Committee posted the cromnibus at about 8:20pm EST on Tuesday, Dec. 9. At that moment, I shifted into a celebratory mode. I wanted everyone to see what I was made of. The hard work of putting me together was done. All that was left was for reporters to analyze me and for Congress to pass me.

Of course, I knew I needed to address the controversy over my provisions. I decided to give @cromnibus a post-game attitude that was somewhere between disinterested and disturbed.

On Thursday afternoon, the House very narrowly passed a preliminary measure allowing a full vote on the cromnibus. Immediately thereafter, Republicans called a recess, sensing that they lacked the votes for the actual cromnibus. In a reflection of how influential @cromnibus had become in the policy debate, journalists mentioned me in their tweets analyzing these developments.

Pulling back the curtain a little bit here: The preliminary vote happened while I was putting together most of this article. I only realized something was happening when I refreshed @cromnibus’ mentions and saw a flood of tweets from my most loyal followers sharing their thoughts.

(Sorry, this embed was not found.)

The @cromnibus saga is part of a larger legislative story that was still playing out as this article went to press. At the time this story was published, the House had not reconvened from its recess to pass the cromnibus or any other spending bill. Government funding expires at midnight. Unless the House and the Senate both pass funding measures tonight, the story of @cromnibus will have been the prelude to another government shutdown.

But let’s not dwell on that until it happens. For all we know, Congress will scramble to pass something at the last minute. They almost always do.

At the end of the day, the lesson of @cromnibus is clear: People love anthropomorphic spending bills. Policy can be dense, but humor rarely is. By @cromnibus gave reporters, policy advisers, politicians, and partisans a chance to indulge in some harmless make-believe while tracking the progress of a very important congressional process.

As it turns out, there was a whole lot of make-believe on Tuesday night, because shortly before 8pm EST, my little creation started trending in Washington, D.C.

TrendsMap

I had no idea how big @cromnibus would get when I started it. In one of the earliest conversations about the account, Madeleine Perry, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)’s digital director, raised a good question when she asked a reporter, “How could anyone find this kind of thing organically?” The answer seems to be: luck. My first mention came from Molly Van, a Tea Party supporter with whom I probably couldn’t disagree more. After that, it was Jessi Leigh Swenson of the National Abortion Federation and two journalists, Seung Min Kim and Elise Foley. Kim seemed bemused by me; Foley was slightly less charitable.

To be fair to Foley, I didn’t have a lot going on at the moment I created @cromnibus. But over the next three days, tracking the account’s rise to demi-stardom and discovering what people saw in it (and got out of it) became part of my daily routine.

Here’s to you, @cromnibus. Your real-life counterpart may be 1,603 pages, but you only needed 140 characters at a time to become quite the character.


Update 8:53pm CT, Dec. 16: Eventually, the House passed the Cromnibus, the Senate followed suit, and President Obama signed it. The Cromnibus is no longer “just a bill.” It’s now a law.

Photo via fortherock/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

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*First Published: Dec 11, 2014, 6:51 pm CST