Congress should embrace one-topic bills

The state of Washington has a sensible law that limits every bill passed by the Legislature and citizen’s initiatives to a single topic. That the federal government has no such rule was prominently on display when Congress passed a giant bill to maintain funding into next year.

The omnibus spending bill has been called “a Christmas tree bill” because lawmakers hung so many riders on it that are unrelated to government appropriations. Buried deep in the bill are measures that affect school lunches, health insurance companies, Environmental Protection Agency rules for farmers and a marketing campaign for Las Vegas.

This free-for-all proliferation of special interest provisions bothered 10th District Congressman Denny Heck so much, he voted against the bill even though it included $39 million for his personal project to build a new elementary school for special needs children on Joint Base Lewis McChord.

“It was a bridge too far on non-appropriations,” Heck told The Olympian Editorial Board on Monday.

He pointed specifically to the further loosening of campaign finance rules as a rider on the spending bill that deserved broader and separate public debate.

Heck objected to a provision that allows individuals to donate 10 times more to political parties, which could then also solicit large donations for conventions and raise unlimited amounts for other purposes. And almost all of this would be “dark money,” meaning its source could be kept secret.

Congress should require more transparency, not less, about who is spending how much to promote candidates and political parties. Heck was correct to object to such an indefensible measure.

But Heck defended another controversial rider: the rollback of a provision in the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation that prohibited insured institutions from gambling on exotic securities, the type that had a key role in the triggering the Great Recession.

Heck may be right that this change that doesn’t deal a death blow to financial reform, but it’s particularly egregious that Citigroup – a large financial institution that will benefit from the change – literally wrote the words that Congress passed. This may not be the end of Dodd-Frank, but it’s an unwelcome step in that direction.

There’s a reason Wall Street puts most of its campaign contribution money into Republican Party coffers.

The sheer number of special interest provisions attached to the spending bill is alarming. One removes a federal requirement to reduce the amount of salt in school lunches. Another releases ranchers and farmers from EPA regulations relating to the Clean Water Act and greenhouse gas emissions.

Washington D.C. should emulate this Washington and limit bills to a single topic. That way each measure would succeed or fail on its own merits.