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Get Off the Omnibus!

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
June 15, 2018

Washington, we have a problem.

We have a problem and it’s a big one – very big, in fact. Legislative bills continue to skyrocket in size and complexity. The average length of Congressional bills is approximately 20 pages, and that’s only because of the large number of one-to-two page inconsequential, or uncontroversial bills that make it through the system. In 1948, the average bill was a little over two pages long. In 2001, the No Child Left Behind bill was over 1,000 pages. The 2009 Affordable Health Care Act was 2,400 pages. The 2013 Immigration Bill was 1,300. Most recently, the bloated $1.3 trillion Budget Appropriations Bill contained 2,200 pages. Very few legislators read and reflected on the entirety of these bills. Few other Americans read them either and therefore had no input to their legislators prior to the Congressional vote for these important bills. I contend that this is no way to run the ship of government. I’m confident that I am far from being alone in thinking this way.

Almost no one, including legislators, can read and understand the extremely large bills presented for vote. Their staffers work tirelessly to summarize those bills for them and tell them if there are any dangers lurking that might go against their party platforms or personal ideology. Deals are made among legislators, quid pro quo or otherwise, that materially affect the passage of these large, complicated bills.

Bundling may lead to bungling.

Bundling is a current problem in the legislative branch. This is an exercise in consolidation; putting many small bills together as one so that smaller earmarks and pork bills can ride the coattails of larger bills that stand a very good chance of passing. When you think about it, that process is unconscionable. If you object to it, however, you risk being labeled as “naïve” or ignorant of the so-called efficient legislative process. My belief is that bills ought to be stand-alone or at least if some measure of bundling is done, that the bills are coherent and integrated with respect to their subject matter. This would significantly benefit us by clarifying what the bill is actually about – a single idea or proposal is best. And if you must do “bundling” of bills, keep the entire package under a certain size.

What can we do?

As previously mentioned, the U.S. Congress certainly needs a wake-up call as to how it crafts and processes legislative bills. Many bills have become so bloated and incomprehensible that practically no one knows exactly what they are voting for. This must stop. The Congress does not have the right to intentionally complicate bills so as to fit some ideological mold. Omnibus (Latin for “for everything”) bill packaging, typically used for appropriations, should be limited to only those types of bills. All other bills should stand on their own merit, be simple and easy to understand – and be read.

My friend Janine Turner, actress and activist for Reconstituting America, is starting a movement with a goal of reducing the size of legislative bills. She calls her proposed bill the TRUTH Act:

T-The bills (including amendments) put forth by legislators are to be limited to single subjects, and THIRTY pages, with U.S. legal code interpretations in the side margins. An accompanying version of the bill is to be written in 5th grade reading level for easy and nationwide comprehension.

R-The bills (and consequent amendments) are to be READ by the legislators – the new amendments are to be underlined with the old version included for clarity. They are to be available for the American people to read – at least thirty days before voting.

U-The bills (and consequent amendments) are to be UNDERSTOOD by the legislators.

T-Before voting on the bills, congressmen and senators are to TESTIFY under oath that they have read and understood the bills and consequent amendments to the bills.

H-The American people are to HEAR the proposed—and final—version of the bills. The bills are to be read on camera and put online so that the people may HEAR (as well as read) the bill at least 30 days before voting on the bill occurs.

Summary

The Congress has no right to obfuscate the legislative process by making bills difficult to read and understand so that they can pass. This is anti-democratic and a very dangerous way to craft and sustain our laws. We should support initiatives like Turner’s proposed Truth Act and change the system for the better. This is something that both political parties can get behind; therefore, it is a unifying proposition. Just give it some thought – and then contact your legislators to ask their support of the initiative.


Author: Bob Brescia serves as the President & CEO of Stem Software, LLC in Odessa, TX. His latest book is Destination Greatness – Creating a New Americanism. Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. He also serves as Chairman of the Board at Basin PBS – West Texas public television. Please contact him at [email protected] or Twitter: @Robert_Brescia.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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