Wednesday, February 3, 2016

One Subject at a Time Act Introduced in Congress

It's not often that we get to talk about good news happening in the US Congress, but today is one of those days. Recently, Congresswoman Mia Love (R-Utah) introduced the One Subject at a Time Act in the House. As the name implies, this legislation would require Congress to consider and vote on legislation that relates only to a single policy proposal and end the practice of bundling many unrelated ideas into a single bill. This is a big deal, and even though it was only introduced a few weeks ago, it already has 11 co-sponsors.

The two key provisions of this bill are as follows:

  • Requires bills to be confined exclusively to one topic
  • Requires bills to have an accurate and descriptive title, just like the One Subject at a Time Act itself.
On the surface, these may seem like pretty small changes, but the likely impact is considerable. Here, we'll discuss a few of the likely benefits.

Bundling and Accountability
As alluded to in the introduction, Congress has a habit of bundling many unlike ideas into a single all-encompassing vote. Partly, this is probably done for efficiency, given the procedural steps involved in introducing legislation. But the other key reason is that it allows Congresspeople to pass things into law that no one would vote for on its own. This is done by attaching unpopular legislation to things that people are afraid to oppose politically, like a vote on military spending or a vote to prevent a government shutdown.

There are many examples of this, but one recent horrible example was the attachment of a cybersecurity bill to the overall budget bill. The cybersecurity bill, known as CISA, sparked a public outcry when Congress tried to pass it in isolation in 2014. The bill was unpopular because it paves the way for further surveillance and data collection from ordinary Americans, and it failed due to the public opinion revolt against it. But then in late 2015, essentially the same legislation was appended to the must-pass $1.1 trillion budget deal, and it passed. Of course, no one is under any illusion that CISA had anything substantive to do with the budget; this was just the only way to get it passed into law.

The One Subject at a Time Act would make things like this illegal. Each bill would stand or fall on its own merits. Just as important, members of Congress would no longer able to explain away support for bad policy because it was attached to something decent. The vote on CISA and the budget would be separate. So if anyone voted for CISA, they would have to justify that directly instead of using the need to pass the budget as an excuse.

This is important when it comes to bad policies like CISA, but it might be even more important when it comes to so-called pork-spending. This refers to the practice where federal budgets contain specific provisions to spend money on certain districts or special interests. A large budget with special handouts for everyone's niche group might be able to pass, but it's unlikely someone could justify them in isolation. It's tough to know exactly what this would look like in practice, but it could play a major role in reducing this kind of waste.

It's a well-known trend that the bills with the most innocent titles tend to contain the worst policies. Indeed frequently, the effect and the title of legislation are polar opposites. For instance, the recent USA Freedom Act codified government surveillance powers, thereby abridging freedom. The Bank Secrecy Act required banks to report more information to the government (thus making banking transactions less secretive or confidential). And the Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act (also known as Sarbanes-Oxley) almost certainly made investors more vulnerable by forcing auditors to pay attention to things that do not matter.*

Under the One Subject at a Time Act, things like the above would not be permissible. The general public would not be deluded into thinking the USA Freedom Act had anything to do with freedom, and Congresspeople hopefully wouldn't have to explain that their opposition to the Patriot Act didn't mean they hated America.

Easy to Sell
One of the best things about this legislation is that it is very difficult to make a legitimate argument against it. What Congressperson is going to legitimately tell their constituents they advocate for a convoluted process where 1,000 page bills get passed with no one reading them? Similarly, what argument could you publicly give in support of having misleading titles? Obviously, these are rhetorical questions. And that's the genius of this type of procedural legislation. There are many ulterior motives one might have for opposing this kind of reform, but they're all but impossible to defend. That means it has a real chance of passing because opposing it would be very difficult politically for members of either party.

This particular legislation was authored by, which also advocates for a few other smart procedural reforms. So far as I can tell, they're basically masters of crafting nonpartisan legislation that would be both impactful and very difficult to argue against. Their political philosophy is libertarian in nature, but their legislative agenda definitely has something for everyone (antiwar, anti-drug war, anti-Fed, pro-immigration, pro-Internet privacy, etc.). I'd encourage you to check them out.

We'll keep an eye on this legislation, and let you know when there are any major developments. But for now, it's nice to know that at least some members of Congress are trying to make constructive changes.

*In case anyone is curious about the details, basically Sarbanes-Oxley meant that public accountants had to pay more attention to company's internal accounting processes and thus less attention to the financial statements themselves. Effectively, the bill made auditors rely on the company's own due diligence to catch mistakes and less on third-party evidence. It was great for the accounting industry because it meant a lot more audit fees, but in my experience as a former auditor, it made audits less reliable for investors.

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