Speaker Beth Harwell’s move to impose limits on bill introductions, if accepted by the full House, should indeed save money and speed things up in Legislatorland, just as she predicts. But it has other ramifications, possibly including a lessening of legislative power, that may stir some misgivings.
The 10-bills-per-year limit is part of a shake-up in House operations proposed by the speaker as she begins a second two-year term with a new Republican supermajority in place. The rest of the package is substantial and substantive, though perhaps less controversial.
Legislative leaders have talked for decades about limiting bill introductions, but nothing has been done until now. It’s worth noting that Gov. Bill Haslam made a point — after 2,200 bills were introduced in the 2011 session — of saying the number should be cut by about a third and that he’d work with legislative leaders on meeting that goal.
Said the governor at the time: “One of the points that we try to make is that every bill that’s proposed actually does cost money. We have commissioners who have to run down and say, ‘How does this impact? What’s it going to cost?’ And then we have to have a position on that.”
He’s right, of course. Every bill introduced costs staff time and taxpayer money. And many duplicate other bills, are frivolous or even downright goofy.
So the governor prodded the legislative leadership on the matter about 18 months ago. Harwell subsequently sounded out House members, and now we have action in response to gubernatorial guidance.
Harwell’s proposed 10-bill limit has some exceptions. One of them is for bills that are part of the governor’s legislative package — Haslam had 55 bills last session. So bills introduced at the governor’s behest don’t count toward a lawmaker’s limit.
The individual legislator’s bill brainstorms are thus subject to restrictions; the governor — and his cabinet members or those who can talk him into putting a measure into the mill — remains uninhibited. This may be seen as a subtle shift in the balance of legislative power versus executive branch power — enough to inspire some of those misgivings.
Over in the Senate, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has made no move to impose a bill limit. But a House limit could effectively limit senators, too, since a bill must have sponsors in both chambers before it can become law.
A senator could still introduce 300 or so bills — some have done so — but unless he or she can find House members willing to sponsor each for him in the other chamber as part of the 10-bill limit, the introduction would be pointless from the standpoint of passage.
Some other ramifications:
A limit on bill introductions may tend to expand the number of attempts to amend bills on the House floor or in committees as members who couldn’t introduce a separate bill of their own try to attach their proposals to another legislator’s bill.
By forcing legislators to prioritize, which can be a good thing, they may also ignore matters that are important to a small constituency but not of broad interest. This could make life difficult for lobbyists wishing to revise some obscure provision of law that impacts a particular client.
Bills impacting only one city or county are exempt from the limits. This may encourage legislators to focus more on local issues — for better or worse.
The move could impact filing of so-called “caption bills,” which are basically placeholders that can be amended later to bring up an issue after the deadline for bill introductions has passed. Caption bills often inspire controversy with critics complaining they are often unnecessary and, when used, can blindside opponents and lead to rapid, late-session passage without proper vetting. But they can also be needed when a subject comes up that wasn’t anticipated early in a session.
The governor, of course, could continue to have caption bills introduced without limit. An individual legislator would have to decide if he or she should use one of 10 bills as a placeholder. There are suggestions that limits would reduce the number of caption bills. But it probably won’t eliminate them.
The way things are now, some legislators don’t file 10 bills in a year. With the new system, such folks can be talked by colleagues or lobbyists into filing a placeholder or two.
So every representative will have 10 general bills — a total of 990 for the 99 House members. The current average has been about double that number, meaning the limit would exceed Haslam’s goal of a one-third reduction in bills.
Maybe a governor’s reach should exceed a supermajority’s grasp.
Note: This also appears in Sunday’s News Sentinel.