Unnecessarily Broad Bills

Representative Dan Howell filed HB0074, a Bill which purports to remove an “obsolete” reporting requirement for the Commissioner of the Department of Environment and Conservation. Before analyzing the merits of the Bill, it’s worth examining a procedural problem that plagues our General Assembly. This Bill is filed very broadly, opening up all of Title 4 (State Government), all of Title 11 (Natural Areas), and all of Title 64 (Regional Authorities). Particularly when a Bill changes a very specific part of a statute, it is better to cite the Title, Chapter, and Part the Bill is amending, not only to help citizens identify the change the lawmaker is proposing, but also in order to prevent ill-conceived or even dishonest legislation. Sometimes, most especially when legislation proposes a broad, sweeping change, it is necessary to open up an entire Title and Chapter, or several Titles when the subject matter is spread out across the Tennessee Code.

Sometimes legislators will file unnecessarily broad Bills merely out of laziness or ignorance. It’s easier to open up an entire Title than to be specific, and it allows them wiggle room in case they get it wrong and must amend some other Chapter or Part. It is, more often than not, an indication that the legislator in question has not done their homework on the legal implications of the Bill and is filing legislation sloppily and without adequate consideration of the consequences.

However, there are other, more shady reasons for filing unnecessarily broad Bills, ones which citizens need to be saavy to in order to prevent their legislators from sneaking in laws they would not approve of. For example, legislators will sometimes file “placeholder” Bills which opens up the Title(s) they are planning to change. These Bills as originally introduced often purport to do one thing, from ridiculously controversial to barely notable at all, but then the Bill is amended during the business of the legislature to do something entirely different. In the case of highly controversial Bills, they are often filed in order to force a “compromise” that is actually what the legislator wanted in the first place. That is a tried and true negotiation tactic, though, and usually citizens can see it coming.

Another tactic is to file one’s Bills broadly so as the Session goes forward, the legislator can offer amendments on their own legislation to other representatives who decide they want to change some law, but without all the fuss and bother of filing another Bill on the matter. It’s relatively easy for citizens to go to the General Assembly’s website and look at all the Bills filed under subjects they’re interested in such as Education, but it’s more difficult to track what changes are being made by amendments to other Bills which may start out with a particular intent but morph into something else entirely. Some Titles contain laws which affect subjects one would expect to be under a different heading. When the legislature cut Tax Relief for disabled veterans in half, for example, the Bill was filed under Taxation not Veterans. If you are someone keeping an eye on laws the legislature is writing pertaining to veterans, you could have easily missed it, and a lot of taxpayers did.

This is why it’s important for those watching the legislature to, 1) note broadly-filed Bills when they are filed, 2) note which Titles they open up, and 3) keep an eye on the amendments attached to them as the Session moves forward. Often controversial amendments are pushed through the legislature very quickly, and citizens don’t have much time to notice the Bill and contact their representatives to either protest or express support of its passage. This is, of course, intended. Despite what politicians will tell you during an election year or when they’re fundraising, they prefer to be left alone to do what they want instead of being held accountable by the citizens who put them in their office.

So let’s look at a list of Bills so far which have been filed broadly, and in many cases, unnecessarily broadly:

It probably goes without saying that our state laws pertaining to criminal justice, education, insurance, professions, banking, and welfare have a great deal of consequence in the day to day lives of Tennesseans. When I see Bills whose purpose could have been filed much more specifically, opening up entire Titles in these areas, it worries me that our legislators are trying to sneak through unpopular laws later in the Session by using amendments they hope no one will notice in time. At best, it worries me that the legislator filing the Bill hasn’t given the issue proper due diligence befitting a serious issue before our General Assembly. This does not inspire confidence that his or her idea has any real merit. Our legislators are as capable of having knee-jerk reactions and bad ideas as the rest of us; the difference is that they have the power to make them into laws which affect our daily lives. I would hope they would take that responsibility very seriously.