by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
George Leef explains for Forbes readers how a change in legislative procedure on Capitol Hill could generate benefits for American taxpayers.
The United States Constitution … has no provision that limits bills to a single subject. Consequently, we get the phenomenon of the “Christmas Tree” bill – a bill that starts with a single subject but soon becomes adorned with numerous irrelevant provisions that are added to buy the support of legislators who in turn are buying the support of interest groups.
That leads to huge bills that are too monstrous to read, much less really understand, and impose many costs on the taxpayers that would be hard to defend on their merits alone.
One member of the House who sees the problem is Representative Mia Love of Utah. She recently introduced the One Subject At a Time Act. It would require that each bill in Congress be limited to only one subject. (Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is sponsoring the same bill in the Senate.)
Unfortunately, the govtrack website puts the probability of passage for both bills at zero. Similar bills have been introduced in the past and never gotten out of committee. It isn’t hard to figure out why: Most members of Congress, regardless of party, like to “bring home the bacon” to constituents and an easy way of doing that is by trading favors with other legislators. So putting this bill out again is not likely to accomplish anything except to raise awareness of the problem.
In a step that was meant to address the Christmas Tree bill problem, back in 1996 Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Line-Item Veto Act, which gave the president authority to excise spending items included in omnibus bills. This could have helped marginally, but in 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could not give the president such authority in Clinton v. City of New York.
Therefore, solving this problem seems to require amending the Constitution.
In their 1999 Utah Law Review article, “Uneasy Riders: The Case for a Truth-in-Legislation Amendment,” (available here, but not free), law professor Brannon Denning and attorney Brooks Smith argued that we need such an amendment because of the public perception that “what does get through Congress is either merely legislation designed to service special interest groups that ensure lawmakers are reelected, or unnecessary spending measures for members’ home districts.”