Christmas tree bills: Good or bad?

A recent post on Shallow Cogitations about the financial bill (the “bailout” or "economic stabilization"), got me thinking.

Hank’s post highlights some of the items added to the bill to pick up votes, which he describes as costs of the bill (or “frosting on manure”, in his follow-up comment). You can read my comment at his post, so I won’t repeat it here.

The larger question is a topic on which I’ve gone back and forth in my thinking over the years: how Congress structures bill content to achieve passage.

When I served in the Idaho legislature, we couldn’t do what Congress does. The state constitution requires that all bills be on a single topic. If I voted for a bill, or against it, that vote typically had a pretty clear subject. Not always a clear meaning, mind you—I might support the underlying issue but believe the bill was poorly written and thus vote against it, or recognize that an amendment had gutted the purpose and prefer to wait for a better bill than to pretend this one actually did anything.

But when you hear that a specific candidate “supports veterans” or “opposes wasteful spending,” look at the basis for that claim. Typically it will be votes on bills that include hundreds of separate and often unrelated subjects. So one could simultaneously vote for and against veterans, for and against energy alternatives, for and against education, in any given bill. This isn’t to say that voting records are meaningless—take a look at the rankings from constituency groups at Project Vote Smart and you’ll see clear patterns.

At the state level, the budget bills are the ones where individual line items give or take away for various constituencies. In Idaho, the capital budget was the “Christmas tree” bill: hang a couple of extra shiny ornaments on it to pick up key votes from legislators who could go home and tell voters they were bringing jobs to the district because state-funded construction would go there, and the bill would pass.

Congress has 435 members in the House, 100 in the Senate. If they had to take each topic individually the way the state does, then a health care bill would be only a health care bill, an energy bill would be only an energy bill. We might see clearer delineations of philosophical and ideological differences if this were the case.

Tax and fiscal policy—and health care and energy and so forth--aren’t that simple. Every policy encourages or discourages specific behaviors, with the underlying premise that this behavior modification is a good thing for public policy. Where would we draw the line and say something did or didn’t “belong” in a single-subject bill?

An item that could be described as energy and/or health policy—providing a bike commuter tax credit (at a much lower dollar figure and overall cost than the existing tax credits for parking, vanpools and transit, by the way)—is embedded in the financial bill. That particular item was introduced as a separate bill already, by Earl Blumenauer of Oregon who is an ardent bike advocate, but had not made it all the way through the system. See Biking Bis for a discussion of the politics, and this page for a discussion of the federal commuting benefit in general.

Whether the economic stabilization bill itself is good policy or bad remains to be seen. They hung a bike ornament on it, but Blumenauer voted no. They also hung ornaments on it for other constituencies who had probably been working their issues separately and saw this as an opportunity (rightly so).

Should these disparate subjects be included in large bills as bargaining tools? Would we get better policy if everything had to be debated separately? We’d certainly get less policy, since there would be even more bills than there are already. There are so many unintended effects and policies that actually work at cross purposes—think about tax subsidies for tobacco farmers for just a minute….—that I don’t know if anyone could say whether we’d be better off, or worse.

1 comment :

  1. Browsing through the rules of the house--man I hate to read language like that--I imagine that they could adopt a rule similar to what Idaho has in its constitution. It could be in their best interest, too, by preventing them from voting for something before they were against it. Or something like that.


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