Cut the Crap, Congress: The Case for a Single Subject Amendment

Hanging the Omnibus Holiday Stocking

Figure 1. RJ Matson, “Hanging the Omnibus Holiday Stocking,” Roll Call, 13 Dec. 2015, www.rollcall.com/news/an-omnibus-capitol-quip, Accessed 22 Mar. 2017.

By John Menton

It is no secret that we Americans are upset with our political system. Congress’ approval rate is dishearteningly low, and the bitter partisan divide that continues to fracture our society prevents us from achieving any meaningful compromise or reform. So the question constantly arises: How can we bring change to our political system and ensure that our government is accurately representing the desires of the American people? Considering this, let me first explain who I am and why I chose to write my AP Lang research essay about imposing new regulations on the United States Congress. My name is John Menton, and I am a 17-year-old high school junior from Tallahassee, Florida. For the past year and a half, I have worked for Single Subject Amendment, a Tallahassee-based organization seeking to reform the federal legislative process. Like most, I had essentially no knowledge of “rider amendments” or “pork barrel spending” before taking the job. Spider Webb, a former Tallahassee lobbyist who founded Single Subject in his retirement, recruited my help solely based on my previously demonstrated interest in government (I have worked in constituent services for former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, paged in the Florida Senate, and served as a Messenger for the Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives). He called me, scheduled a meeting, and arrived at my house one afternoon, briefcase and loose-leaf papers in hand, to explain his mission. He talked with me for nearly an hour, describing the purpose of his organization, emphasizing its importance, and answering my questions. I could hear the enthusiasm and excitement in his voice. “Five years from now,” he confidently declared, “you and I could be testifying together in front of the United States Congress.” Whether that happens remains to be seen, but, through my work with Mr. Webb, I have developed a passion for Single Subject Amendment’s mission and a desire to spread awareness of our important efforts. While many Americans –like myself before meeting Mr. Webb – are unaware, unrelated provisions on bills and omnibus legislation squander taxpayer money, corrode the legislative process, and reduce government transparency. To curb Congressional corruption and hold politicians accountable to the people, the American Constitution requires an amendment limiting bills to a single, clearly-defined subject.

To fully recognize the consequences and problems caused by unrelated legislative provisions and omnibus legislation, one must first learn their history and their role in American politics. Ungermane provisions on bills, commonly called “riders,” are amendments added to legislation that do not relate directly to the bill’s superficial purpose. In his 1994 article, “Appropriations Riders,” William and Mary law professor Neal Devins defines riders as “non-germane amendments that change existing law, impose additional duties on government, or require judgements and determinations not otherwise required by law.” Devins also notes later in the article that no Constitutional regulation currently exists to keep Congress from using such amendments, though many have argued that adding riders – especially adding them to appropriations bills – neutralizes the President’s veto power. Congress must pass appropriations bills to function, leaving such legislation particularly vulnerable to the addition of unrelated provisions. Even if a certain rider provision is unpopular, the only way for Congress or the President to shoot it down is to repeal the bill entirely (Denning and Smith). In a particularly noteworthy example, Democrats defeated a 2015 bill which would appropriate funds to fight the Zika virus due to the addition of partisan riders by Republicans (Drabold and Sifferlin). Like appropriation bills, omnibus legislation is governed by the same “all-or-nothing” tactic (Duhaime). Omnibus bills in American politics result from the combination of several different appropriations bills. Combining multiple bills into one means that these bills often contain various subjects and are extremely long (Duhaime). Despite these characteristic complications, as with normal appropriations bills, the only way to prevent one part of an omnibus bill from becoming law is to concurrently prevent the entire bill from passing. With this understanding of the history and significance of riders, appropriation bills, and omnibus legislation, one can recognize and acknowledge the threats they pose to American governance.

Because riders are often covertly tacked onto appropriation legislation as a way for members of Congress to “bring home the bacon,” taxpayer money is wasted on provisions that benefit politicians and not the people. A common practice among members of Congress is to use appropriations riders to offer or trade favors with other members in exchange for their support of a certain bill. This practice, commonly known as “logrolling,” can often be an effective mechanism to prevent Congressional gridlock, but it can also result in billions of dollars of excessive spending (Joshpe). To convince others to vote for a bill, members of Congress often attach riders to the original legislation that bring government money unnecessarily to the home districts of members they are seeking to convince, portraying these targeted members as successful, effective representatives to their constituents and increasing their base of support. Essentially, riders allow members of Congress to cunningly embezzle tax payer dollars to finance their own reelection campaigns.
Moreover, in omnibus bills, excessive, wasteful spending is hidden within the massive legislation. Satirically dubbed “Christmas Tree Bills,” omnibus legislation can be ornamented by unrelated provisions that hand federal money to Congressmen and lobbyists (Leef). This view of omnibus bills is well illustrated by R.J. Matson’s cartoon, “Hanging the Omnibus Holiday Stocking” (see figure 1). While the cartoon is hyperbolic for comedic effect, Matson does expose the ridiculous nature of the rider phenomenon, showing how members of Congress hide their self-promoting riders in massive omnibus bills.

In 2015, Rand Paul voted against the major omnibus spending package for the year, justifying his choice by saying “It was over a trillion dollars… my biggest complaint is that I have no idea what kind of things they stuck in the bill” (Richardson). Senator Paul also made sure to acknowledge that there is not one group or party at fault; politicians from both sides of the political spectrum use the omnibus riders to benefit themselves and their political parties (Richardson). Because there is no restriction ensuring that bills pertain to a specific subject, Congress is able to use taxpayer money as a way to promote personal or partisan agendas.
Of greater concern than money, however, is the corrosive effect riders and omnibus legislation have on the legislative process. As columnist Glen Reynolds writes in his article about Congresswoman Mia Love’s efforts to institute a single subject rule, most rider provisions would never succeed if voted on individually: “Individually, most of these lousy provisions wouldn’t pass, but when banded together for mutual protection they can.” Basically, this means that Congress regularly passes provisions that do not garner majority support and therefore circumvent their Constitutional obligations. The use of riders gives Congress a method to effectively nullify the system of checks and balances established by the Constitution. As a result of the Supreme Court’s 1998 ruling in Clinton v. City of New York, the President is unable to veto specific provisions within bills (called line-item vetoing), meaning that Congress is able to bypass their executive check through riders and omnibus packages (Joshpe). The 1901 opinion of a Pennsylvania court in Commonwealth v. Barnett addressed this issue, stating that, because of the attachment of riders to appropriation legislation, the executive is forced to “approve obnoxious legislation, or bring the wheels of the government to a stop for the want of funds” (Duhaime). Denning and Smith also address the distribution of powers problem in “The Truth-in-Legislation Amendment,” stating that presidents are forced to accept riders due to the repercussions that would undoubtedly occur from vetoing the entire bill (832). The Framers of the Constitution designed Congress to represent the interests of the majority of Americans in the law-making process, but the use of riders clearly undermines and deteriorates this established purpose.

Most importantly, though, the use of rider provisions and omnibus bills decreases government transparency and allows Congress to conceal its corruption. As discussed previously in this paper, omnibus bills are too long to read and cover too many subjects to be truly understood. Not only does this mean that Congress spends money unnecessarily, but it also means that other, more controversial provisions of a bill can pass Congress buried deep within the countless pages of confusing legislation: “A bill that’s so long that nobody can read it is, naturally, pretty likely to escape scrutiny. With thousands of pages and hundreds or thousands of provisions in the bill, what’s the chance that any particular provision will be noticed or criticized?” (Reynolds). Similarly, riders hitched to popular legislation are shielded from scrutiny due to large support for the overall bill. The result of all of this is a Congress that says one thing and does another. Riders and omnibus bills allow members of Congress to hide their corruption from the American people, contributing to the widespread distrust of the system today. Because bills are not required to adhere to one clearly-defined subject, Congress members are able to slyly abuse their power and deceive the public, using their positions to benefit themselves rather than the people they claim to serve.
While I cannot claim that I have a cure-all solution for Congress’ problems, amending the Constitution to mandate all bills adhere to a single, clearly defined subject defined in the title would help prevent and deter the Congressional corruption and deceit caused by riders and omnibus legislation. However, because riders and unrelated provisions work to the benefit of its members, Congress is not likely to establish and enforce this rule on its own. To quote again from Reynolds’s USA Today article, “The public isn’t really represented at all. That’s not an accident — it’s by design.” Though previous attempts to regulate Congress’ use of riders, such as the Line-Item Veto Act of 1996, have been made, they failed to adequately combat the issue (Joshpe). As a result, the logical next step to institute meaningful reform is to amend the Constitution to enact more stringent regulations on the legislative process. On the state level, 41 different American states have established single subject rules in their state constitutions (“Single Subject Rules”). While this fact alone is not a sufficient argument for the same rules on the federal level, Denning and Smith point out that many of the problems seen on the federal level have been effectively restricted in state legislatures by these rules: “Single-subject and title requirements have served to curb some egregious abuses of the legislative process in the states for over a century and a half” (837). Joshpe, too, makes this argument, writing that state rules have prevented legislatures from passing the long, indecipherable legislation commonly seen today in Congress. The state-level successes of Constitutional single subject rules alone are not a complete justification for a single subject amendment to the United States Constitution, but they do illustrate the reform potential of similar regulation on the Congress.

Another complication that would come with passing a Constitutional single subject amendment is enforcement. Because no such regulation has existed on the federal level, new procedures must be established to handle violations of the amendment. If a bill were to violate the single subject amendment, a lawsuit would be brought in the federal court system. The courts, then, must determine whether they would only nullify the specific passages in the bill which violate the amendment or instead strike down the entirety of the bill. To this end, courts should nullify the entire bill to which the rider is attached rather than ruling on specific provisions in a line-item fashion. Judicial severing of violating rider provisions from the rest of the bill would do nothing to deter members from continuing to add riders. If a bill is found to violate the single subject amendment, courts should invalidate the entire bill. This way, members who added the problematic rider would lose favor with other members of Congress who had vested interest in the rest of the bill, forcing the violator to reckon with the consequences of her actions and encouraging her from engaging in similar practices in the future (Denning and Smith 836). Enforcing the single subject amendment in this manner would establish consequences that would compel Congress to legislate honestly. To combat the manipulation and opacity of riders and omnibus legislation, a single subject amendment would encourage Congress to legislate truthfully and transparently, curbing corruption and holding politicians accountable to the American people.

I cannot pretend that a single subject amendment is the answer to our nation’s political inefficiency. American government today is plagued by waste, distrust, and deceit on countless levels. But there are steps we Americans can take to begin the process of cleaning up our political system; one of these steps is the single subject amendment. Party allegiances and ideologies aside, we can all agree that there is room for our government to improve. We can all agree that our government is at its best when it is responsible to the people it is designed to serve. One way we can repair our broken system is by working together as responsible citizens to add a single subject amendment to the Constitution. While it may not solve all of our problems, a single subject amendment is a necessary step towards creating a government that truly represents and serves the American people.

Works Consulted

  • Denning, Brannon P., and Brooks R. Smith. “The Truth-in-Legislation Amendment: An Idea Whose Time Has Come.” Tennessee Law Journal, vol. 78, 2011, pp. 831–837.
  • Devins, Neal. “Appropriation Riders.” Faculty Publications, no. 1635, 1994, pp. 67–69. William and Mary Law School Scholarship Repository, http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/ viewcontent.cgi?article=2679&context=facpubs. Accessed 20 Mar. 2017.
  • Drabold, Will, and Sifferlin, Alexandra. “Zika Funding Bill Fails as Congress Is Unable to Reach Compromise.” Time.com, 19 July 2016, p. 1. Explora, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mih&AN=11691964.
  • Duhaime, Lloyd. “Omnibus Bill Definition.” Duhaime’s Law Dictionary, www.duhaime.org/LegalDictionary/O/OmnibusBill.aspx. Accessed 21 Mar. 2017.
    Joshpe, Brett. “How about a Federal Single Subject Rule?” The Washington Examiner, 21 Oct. 2014, www.washingtonexaminer.com/how-about-a-federal-single-subject-rule/article/2555099. Accessed 19 Mar. 2017.
  • Leef, George. “Crimp Wasteful Federal Spending with This Constitutional Amendment.” Forbes Magazine, 30 Jan. 2016, www.forbes.com/sites/georgeleef/2016/01/29/could-a-single-subject-amendment-put-an-end-to-christmas-tree-bills/#18282d588834. Accessed 21 Mar. 2017.
  • Matson, RJ. “Hanging the Omnibus Holiday Stocking.” Roll Call, 13 Dec. 2015, www.rollcall.com/news/an-omnibus-capitol-quip. Accessed 22 Mar. 2017.
    “Mission and Purpose.” Single Subject Amendment, 2017. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
  • Reynolds, Glenn Harlan. “Want to Know Why Voters Are So Mad? Mia Love Has the Answer: Glenn Reynolds.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 1 Feb. 2016, www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/02/01/mia-love-single-subject-rule-constitutional-amendment–reynolds-column/79605158/. Accessed 21 Mar. 2017.
  • Richardson, Bradford. “Paul: Nobody Read the $1.1 Trillion Omnibus Bill.” The Hill, Capitol Hill Publishing, 21 Dec. 2015, thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/263836-paul-nobody-read-the-11-trillion-omnibus-bill. Accessed 22 Mar. 2017.
  • “Single Subject Rules.” National Conference of State Legislatures, 8 May 2009, www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/single-subject-rules.aspx. Accessed 24 Mar. 2017.

About John Menton

John Menton is the great-grandson of Governor LeRoy Collins and is a rising high-school senior at Maclay School in Tallahassee, Florida. He has served as an intern with Single Subject Amendment for the past year. In addition to his work with Single Subject, he is an intern with Gwen Graham for Governor, and he served previously as an intern for Congresswoman Gwen Graham, a Florida Senate Page for Senator Jack Latvala, and a Florida House of Representatives Messenger for Former Speaker Steve Crisafulli.