Congress’s passage of a second COVID-19 stimulus bill has reminded us of the messiness involved in passing laws in our form of government.
Traditionally, our country’s self-governance ideal was that a good law would garner sufficient support on its own to be passed. However, soon after adoption of our Constitution, some members of Congress began to withhold their support for any particular law in exchange for something unrelated to the original law being included with the original law.
For example, Congress might introduce a bill regarding a medicine. If the sponsors of the medicine bill are short on votes for passage, the medicine bill sponsors will ask additional Congressional colleagues to support the bill. One of those Congressional colleagues might offer to support the medicine bill in exchange for new bridges in the district that the hold-out member of Congress represents. Thus, to get the bill passed, a provision is added to the medicine bill to provide the new bridges.
This process of exchanging a vote for unrelated additions to laws is sometimes referred to as “adding Christmas tree ornaments to the law.” In essence, if Congress wants to pass a law to buy a Christmas tree, Congress may end up having to also include in the purchase hundreds of ornaments to garner the support of individual members of Congress.
The COVID stimulus bill passed by Congress last week included some interesting Christmas tree ornaments considering that the purported purpose of the bill is pandemic economic relief. The law passed by Congress last week includes the creation and funding of three new museums, prohibits many performance-enhancing drugs from being used on racehorses and makes a formal statement regarding the U.S. government’s political position as to the Dalai Lama in China.
A few decades ago, America tried to fix this ornamentation mess by allowing the President to veto parts and portions of bills that were included in laws (called the “line-item veto”). Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruled that the line-item veto power was unconstitutional, and there was insufficient political support to facilitate a constitutional amendment on that issue.
In Ohio, the governor has line-item veto power as to spending bills. And Ohio’s constitution is explicitly designed to avoid adding Christmas tree ornaments to laws. The constitutional provision is called the “One Subject Rule,” and it requires that each law deal with only one subject.
The One Subject Rule was often traditionally considered to be a recommendation only. And, one Ohio Representative is quoted as saying that all laws are necessarily focused on one subject because every law deals with state government.
In 2004, the Ohio Supreme Court issued an important decision on the One Subject Rule. The court stated that the One Subject Rule will only be enforced by the courts to strike down laws when the violation of the One Subject Rule is “manifestly gross and fraudulent.” In that case, the court concluded that a 172-page law that included hundreds of completely unrelated provisions was manifestly gross and fraudulent and therefore invalid and unenforceable.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.