It’s nearly impossible to get Democrats and Republicans in Congress to agree on anything these days, but a state senator from Pasco County might have a way to bring them together — even if it’s to campaign against his plan.
State Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, wants to do something this country hasn’t seen in 227 years: to call a Constitutional convention, with a goal of adding what he feels is an important amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
He wants to force the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate to limit all bills to a single subject.
“This is about having the federal government start conducting themselves in a professional manner,” Simpson said. “Most of the frustration we have with our government is that you have something like a spending bill in Congress. They always add on several hundred millions of dollars of something that has nothing to do with the subject they are dealing with. And as a citizen of the state of Florida, I am tired of our federal government being operated this way.”
Simpson is referring to what are known as “riders,” typically additional controversial legislation added to a major bill that would likely never pass on its own, and usually used to help negotiate support on a bill from individual members. Those riders can contain all kinds of requests, but more often than not approves some project in a congressman’s district that might not have been funded otherwise.
Riders also can be used to delay other major bills by adding unrelated items to it those supporting the main bill would be against.
“Both parties are guilty about the use of riders,” said W. Spider Webb Jr., a former Tallahassee-based lobbyist who founded the Single Subject Amendment organization. “We are not trying to give Congress a black eye. We are trying to improve the way Americans view Congress.”
Approval ratings of Congress are at historic lows, a lot of it based on the gridlock found within the walls of its chambers on Capitol Hill. Many on the outside don’t believe the word “bipartisan” exists anymore, and unpopular riders to bills dealing with the federal budget have stalled many of them on the floor of Congress.
Riders are business as usual in Congress, but it’s not that way in Florida and 40 other states, Simpson said.
“Our federal government should learn to live within its means, have a balanced budget, and pass bills on their own merit, just as states have to,” Simpson said.
State governments prevent riders either by requiring bills to be single-subject, or giving governors the power to veto specific portions of a bill and approving the rest.
President Bill Clinton signed a line-item veto act into law introduced by U.S. Sen. Bob Dole in 1996, but it was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court two years later.
Simpson wants Florida to be the first of the 34 states needed to call for a Constitutional convention, which would put Pasco County on the forefront of history. The last time a Constitutional convention was called, it took place in Philadelphia in 1787, and created what would become the U.S. Constitution.
“If Florida passes this, then other states will take a more serious look at this,” Simpson said. “Doing a Constitutional amendment is such a large task, and I think it will pick up momentum as more states pass it.”
All Constitutional amendments since the Bill of Rights have gone through Congress. Simpson and Webb, however, suspect Congress won’t be so quick to take on an amendment that would change everything they know in Washington, D.C. A Constitutional convention would bypass Congress, and any approved measure would then require 38 states to ratify.
U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, said he likes the idea, but has some reservations.
“In general, I support the idea of single-subject legislation,” Ross told The Laker/Lutz News in an email. “Although it may be more difficult to pass a lot of bills, at least we would remove irrelevant riders that are usually attached to current legislation.”
The problem, however, is when Congress has to deal with large complicated issues, which would be difficult to break down into individual bills.
“My concerns with a Constitutional amendment limiting all bills to single-subject bills is that it would restrict the ability to take legislative action in an omnibus fashion in the event of an emergency or catastrophe,” Ross said.
Webb knows it’s an uphill battle from here to get a Constitutional convention. In the last 50 years, two attempts to call a Constitutional convention fell just short. And if it were to happen, it might open a plethora of other legal issues — especially on the topic of whether a Constitutional convention has to be single-subject or not. Some scholars believe that once a convention is called, any subject can be brought to the table.
It’s worth that risk, Webb said.
“This simple procedural, nonpartisan provision would have a profound effect on the way Congress conducts business,” he said. “As a result, you would be limiting pork barrel spending … and you would be increasing the institutional accountability of Congress.”
Simpson’s Senate measure has a companion in the House introduced by State Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello. Simpson says his measure should have its first committee hearing next month.
For more information on the national movement, visit SingleSubjectAmendment.com.