Single Subject Bills

In a recent post, fellow blogger Craig Eyermann discussed the concessions that Kevin McCarthy made to fellow Republicans to gain their support to be elected Speaker of the House of Representatives. One of them was “More single-subject bills to allow members to vote on specific, narrow issues instead of thousand-page pork barrel behemoths.” That’s a good idea, but it won’t happen.

Let me relate this issue to a recent experience of mine, and one I suspect you have also experienced. I needed six nails to make a small repair on some wooden steps on my back deck, so I went off to Home Depot to get some nails. The ones I wanted were sold in a box of 50. I only wanted six, but to get them I had to buy the whole box.

Economists refer to this type of situation as an “all or nothing” sale. You want something, and the seller makes you buy stuff you don’t want to get what you want. Take it or leave it. How many times have you gone shopping for something and found it’s only sold in packages of threes, when you want just one?

You can see the parallel here between the all or nothing packaging found in markets and those “thousand page pork barrel behemoths” passed by Congress. Every member is voting for a bunch of stuff they don’t want so they can get the one thing they do want.

Single subject bills are a good idea because if all those items in the behemoth bill were voted on separately, most of them would not get majority support. We’d have a smaller budget and we’d be better off.

The reason it’s a good idea is also the reason it won’t happen. All members want their own pork barrel projects to be approved, and they are willing to vote for the whole package to get the component they want, just like I was willing to buy 50 nails to get the six that I wanted. Members like those pork barrel behemoth bills, because without them, they won’t get their pork.

When it’s all or nothing, Representatives will take it all.

Note the weasely wording in that concession McCarthy agreed to. It didn’t say the House would eliminate those pork barrel behemoth bills, just that there would be “more single subject bills.” Members of Congress can say things like that because it makes a good sound bite and gives the appearance of a concession by McCarthy, but they won’t act on it, because it is not in the interest of the individual members.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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