One of the most serious threats to a “government of the people” on both the federal and state government levels is the combining of several pieces of legislation into single bills, rather than voting on one item at a time. The Founding Fathers were very concerned about this and tried to prevent it, but over the years this is a constitutional process that has been ignored increasingly blatantly. Combining several items into a single bill enables special interests to “buy” the vote of legislators by combining the issue of concern to the legislator with the issues of concern to special interests.
The 2008 TARP bailout is a good example; middle-class voters around the country wrote letters to their congressmen not to vote for the bailout, but to let corrupt financial giants fall and return the economy to those practicing sound financial principles. The bailout bill failed on its own merit. The citizen had spoken. Therefore, “sweeteners” were added to the bill to get it passed over the will of the people. The bill that eventually passed included a host of tax breaks, an increase in the size of bank accounts insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, a requirement that health insurance companies provide more coverage for mental health services, a tax benefit for victims of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and even a tax exemption for makers of children’s wooden arrows. Each one of these measures was added to sway the vote of one or a few legislators to whom obtaining those sweeteners was more important than voting “No” on the bailout.
The Omnibus Bills in Minnesota
In the Minnesota State Legislature the passing of “omnibus” legislation, or “garbage bills,” has now become the norm. Each term we now get an “Omnibus Budget Bill,” an “Ominbus Health and Human Services Bill,” an “Omnibus Transportation Bill,” an “Omnibus Education Bill,” and so forth. These bills consist of the combined interests of government agencies, lobbyists, and local concerns of legislators.
Each of these bills gets promoted by a respective government agency that serves as the primary lobbyist for the bill. The bureaucracy of each agency prepares an annual budget and, of course, each agency wants more money and proposes to provide more “necessary” services each year. Then legislators add to this the interests of lobbyists that contribute to their financial campaigns and provide other incentives, and their own special local “pork” projects that will help secure a vote in the next election.
Article IV, Section 17 of the Constitution of Minnesota states a “single-subject rule:”
Laws to embrace only one subject. No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title.
However, omnibus legislation, it is argued, fits within the single subject rule because, for example, an omnibus health and services bill would only contain items related to the single subject of health and human services. However, this does not prevent the combination of multiple items under that subject. Hence a loophole has been created due to the vagueness of interpretation. Thus the legislature is able to engage openly in special interest legislation within a particular subject. This is contrary to the goals of limited, responsible, constitutional government.
From “For the People” to “For Special Interests”
The prevailing rationale in creating the bill is thus a negotiation among the agencies and other special interests to see what they can “get” from the taxpayer. It ultimately has very little relationship to what is in the best interests of society, which is why the founding fathers wanted two houses, representing as diverse of interests as possible, having to agree that something was in the interest of society.
Madison, following Montesquieu, believed that the legislature should be in a state of near perpetual gridlock, passing only legislation that was so overwhelming recognized by the entire society as necessary that it was forced on the legislators from below. The lower house, representing the common citizen, and the upper house, representing the long-term interests of the states, would both have to agree that an item was worthy. In theory, no legislation would be passed unless it was approved by the rich and the poor alike.
Combined legislation allows for items that would not pass on their own through this stringent constitutional process to get added together, at the expense of the people. In 1883, William Graham Sumner, in his essay on “The Forgotten Man” described the political redistribution scheme that had developed:
“A” and “B” put their heads together to decide what “C” shall be made to do for “D.”
Congress has effectively created an unconstitutional legislative process where “A,” the agency head, the humanitarian, or the corporate lobbyist, and “B” the politician, put their heads together and decide what “C,” the citizen will be made to do for “D,” the special interest. The result is not “the will of the people,” but actually a will of those who combine interests at the expense of the people.
Today legislators and politicians often speak of the ability to “compromise,” “to work together,” to “get things done” and to reach “across-the-aisle” as though it is a virtue. But it is not a virtue to steal from the people, and unfortunately, too much of our present day legislation is not much different from a compact among thieves. Today, instead of serving the citizens, the legislators representing the interest groups at both ends of the political spectrum find it easy to “reach across the aisle,” and serve the interests of the financial backers of both political parties at the expense of the “forgotten man,” the taxpayer.
Democratic and Republican legislators reach across and pass legislation in conspiracies that hand out both lower-class social welfare and upper-class corporate welfare with middle-class tax dollars. The result is that this collusion serves the special interests funding the political parties at the expense of the forgotten man in the middle.
Returning to Constitutional Single-Issue Votes
Many people see the problem as “corruption,” and advocate term limits or political campaign reform, or other solutions that would attack the symptoms and not the cause of systemic corruption rooted in combined legislation. A more potent way to discourage special interest legislation through horse-trading and combined “across-the-aisle” legislation would be to have up-and-down votes on single issues. Under such conditions we would return to gridlock as normal because most special interest legislation will not pass on its own merit. We might even return to a legislature that meets every other year.
On a single-issue vote, individual citizens can hold their representatives accountable for their actions. After an omnibus bill is passed, typically a citizen will say to his representative something like “Why did you vote to give our dollars to such-and-such a project in another town far away?” The representative can defend himself by saying, “I felt I needed to vote for it, in spite of its problems, because it included funds for such-and-such in our town.” These excuses would evaporate on constitutional single-subject votes. States would only vote on things that served the interests of the citizens of the entire state. Citizen organizations like the Legislative Evaluation Assembly of Minnesota would also be able to clearly score legislators according to their principles on single-subject votes.
In addition to bills returning to single-subject votes, like a well-written book or journal article, they should be able to fit on one page, or at a minimum contain a one-page summary or abstract that any citizen can read or understand. “Fine Print” is inevitably an attempt to escape transparency through obfuscation detailing complicated concerns, interests, exclusions, terms and conditions that states should not impose on citizens. The content of a bill written “of, by, and for the people,” should be wholly reflected in its summary, with no hidden clauses buried in the details. This is the type of legislation that would be genuinely transparent, and accountability could be assigned to those passing it.
But What About the Complex Budgets of Government Agencies?
The current type of omnibus legislation is not the way to handle large agency budgets. Such budgets should be approved by a specified process that adds no new items that have not been approved by the single-subject rule. Agency budgets would need to be the continuation or modification of existing mandates, based on systems of feedback and public scrutiny related to the overall budget, and handled separately from any new item. If an agency, an interest group, or legislator wants to add a task for the agency to fulfill and provide funding for it, this new item should be subjected to a single-subject rule. Only then would it become a budgetary item for a department.
The budgets of some departments, like the military, are complex and have developed over time. Some latitude would need to be given to the details of such budgets. And, the principle of subsidiarity is important in large institutions so that smaller budgets are contained within larger budgets rather than having large amounts of cash available for misuse in some centralized location. All public expenditures should have a method of clearly assigning responsibility and accountability and some form of check and balance, whether it is two signers on a check or public copies available for anyone to examine on request or on the internet.
Of course, as Ronald Reagan famously said, “There is nothing closer to eternal life than a government bureau.” And, his presidency was the only one in recent history to reduce their proliferation. New ways need to be developed so that government agencies better respond to actual social needs and not get bloated and disconnected over time. But, that is a topic for other articles. One of the most important things is to make sure spurious items don’t get entrusted to bureaucracies in the first place. A single subject rule would help this dramatically.
*The majority of this article is derived from: Gordon L. Anderson, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, Version 4.0 (St. Paul: Paragon House, 2009).
See also an excellent article by former Senator Jack Davies in the August 14, 2015, StarTribnue.