"If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or your arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen."
-Samuel Adams

the Misanthropic Humanist:


13 March 2009

Single Subject, Descriptive Title (SSDT) *updated 15 Mar 09 2005Z

[Updated text is Green]

A while back, I was perusing some blogs when I came across this question: If you could issue a decree adding a single amendment to the U.S. Constitution, what would it be? I was intrigued. Mostly because there are so very many that I would like to see. For some reason or other, I didn't read too many of the comments to see what others' ideas were - I was probably doing something silly like working - but it really got me thinking. Of all the ideas I had - re-issue the whole constitution with "we really mean it this time" after every section and amendment, eliminate agencies' ability to make rules with the effect of law, clarify just what counts as interstate commerce, or even just make myself king for life - I settled on one idea that I thought was pretty good. I think the most harmful general legal problem we have is that there are too many laws, and they are too complicated. Add to that things like 1,419 page stimulus bills that pass without being read, and what we have is an opportunity for severe abuse. Which is sadly obvious to anybody who has actually tried to read that stimulus bill. So what was my great idea? One topic only in each and every bill. Just one. If there is anything in a bill that doesn't clearly pertain to the subject at hand, it can't pass. If the jerks do it anyway, then the Supreme court is required to immediately overturn it.

Now, I couldn't remember where I read that original question, but since I check Instapundit constantly, I figured there was a good chance I'd find it there. Lo and behold, I found instead a link to a proposed amendment addressing exactly this point! As much as that guy blogs, I should have known that he'd have written about an idea I just had before I even had it. Anyway, the best part is that it met with approval from the Law-professing blogfather. I couldn't find any working links to the actual proposal, but I found a link to the text here. It reads: "Congress shall pass no bill, and no bill shall become law, which embraces more than one subject, that subject being clearly expressed in the title."

I like it a lot. I was originally worried about intentional misinterpretation of the "only one idea" concept, for example by claiming everything in the stimulus bill has to do with "stimulation" and therefore passes muster. But since at least forty states have a related law on the books, it must be well tested. I think that use of the word "subject" is the perfect selection, because different things all related to an economic stimulus would be related, but they would not all pertain to one subject.

Still, that's not quite enough. Even before I found that somebody already had this idea, I had gone further. I don't just want one subject, I want it to be short and simple. I want every bill to be only one page long. We now have so many laws that are over-written, confusing, and contradictory that people are frozen to inaction by fear of breaching the law. Rather than wade through the regulatory swamp that sits between here and entrepreneurial job creation, many a man will instead keep his current lousy job and skip the hassle. The number of times in a week that I hear "I don't know if we're allowed to do that" is frustrating beyond belief. The idea that free people are "not allowed" to do something that isn't clearly harmful to somebody else is one of the silliest and saddest things I've ever heard. If the concept of "not allowed" is not uncomfortable to free people, then they are not really free people at all.

So here is the text as I would write it:
"No bill shall become law unless it can be printed in English, single-spaced, on one side of an 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper in a font of 10 points or larger. Any existing law that cannot be printed to conform to this requirement shall be null and void. Each bill shall be read aloud in both the house and the senate chambers. In order to vote on a bill, each senator and representative shall have been present to hear it read aloud in its entirety. This amendment shall not limit the number of times a bill may be read aloud."

I have no doubt that this is not yet perfect. My later section is clearly not written as well as the first part. Brevity is one of the most redeeming features of our current constitution, and I struggle with how to balance that with the specificity that I think it is lacking. Our forefathers intended to leave room for later interpretation specifically because they could not know what time bring. It is a wise idea that they took a little too far, or perhaps our courts have wiggled too far around. After all "shall not be infringed" sounds pretty clear to me, but apparently not to the supreme court. I would prefer if any new amendments were not immediately undermined by a work-around. That's why I want bills read aloud and listened to in this one: So that congresscritters can't just mail in a thousand "yea's" or "nay's" and claim that one big document was really a thousand different bills when we all know it was not. But if you have suggestions for additions, subtractions, clarifications, or if you can just write this one better, please leave it all in the comments. And feel free to continue adding other ideas for later amendments!


  1. I would make this sentence more specific: "No bill shall become law unless it can be printed on one side of an 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper in a manner clearly legible to the average citizen." For example, "No bill shall become law unless it can be printed in English, double-spaced, on one side of an 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper in a font of 10 or larger. This would guarantee that the bill is clearly legible to literate English-speaking citizens. (I don't think the "average" citizen criteria supposes a high enough standard anymore.)

  2. Excellent suggestion, and I've updated the wording to include it. I never thought about the English requirement, but I like it. I added "point" to the font, because it's an actual unit of measurement and therefore even more specific. I had considered including a font size originally, but I was getting wordy. Your conciseness helped, thank you. And finally, I decided to be gracious and go with single-spacing. I've been considering figuring out how many characters that would be and just changing the whole thing to an absolute character limit. Too picky?

  3. PS.
    The inclusion of English was better than I thought, but I may remove it later. It certainly belongs in my hypothetical exercise of "one amendment", but I may just re-write this whole constitution thing. If so, English for all official government transactions is better suited to be a distinct amendment! (who says I can't re-write the whole thing?) Which brings up another subject: I wonder what the merits are of a "kitchen sink" amendment that with one fell swoop vastly re-writes major parts of the constitution? On one hand it would be a shameful thing to do to such a well-organized document. On the other, practicality demands that it get pushed through in an all or nothing fashion: might as well do to congress what they've been doing to us with spending bills, right?

  4. I recommend another section (or perhaps another amendment altogether) to arrange for more stringent Sunset Reviews of existing federal programs and agencies. There are, undoubtedly, hundreds of programs and offices that are dated, bloated, and no longer adding value to our society. The associated administrative costs are more than worth it, if it means that more of our tax dollars will be going toward programs and functions that we, The People, actually want! Signed, A Friend from Aggieland

  5. Interesting. I started writing a response about where it WOULDN'T work... and then couldn't come up with any! You're right that it's a great way to give a fresh look at unnecessary things. It would also have an additional limiting effect on the number and scope of federal laws like I was discussing above since eventually there would be a whole mess of sun-setting laws to look at every year. Congress would be too busy to screw up the country as quickly as we've seen recently. I think, however, that while it would be great for getting congress on record for things like gun control (that sun has so far stayed set) and spending programs, it would have little effect on agencies. The bureaucratic space between agencies and congress gives them the cover that they need to continue them without backlash. But for the most part, you won me over when I tried to argue with you. Nice one!