How One Bill One Subject Will Improve Government Transparency

In This Together One Bill One Project

One Bill One Subject is meant to prevent bills from addressing more than one topic or subject. Though certainly among the shortest of recently proposed legislation, this bill is not insignificant. Such legislation already exists in almost every state constitution in the United States. States began to adopt these bills in the 1800s, when state lawmakers saw the potential damage overly complex bills could inflict.

One of the largest problems with American politics and government right now is the lack of public understanding of legislation and policy. This is partially the fault of the media’s lack of earnest and complete coverage of policy and legislation. But also fault lies with the lawmaker’s and official’s apparent unwillingness to be truly open and transparent. A major example of that lack of transparency is intentionally misleading legislation.

In April, a bill was introduced by Republican Representative Andy Biggs from Arizona to improve clarity in government and law. The bill was introduced to the House Committee on the Judiciary. The wording of the bill is short and simple (as one might expect). The official summary goes as follows:  


One Bill, One Subject Transparency Act

Introduced in House (04/28/2020)

This bill requires each bill or joint resolution to include no more than one subject and the subject to be clearly and descriptively expressed in the measure’s title.

An appropriations bill may not contain any general legislation or change to existing law that is not germane to the subject of such underlying bill.

The bill voids measures or provisions noncompliant with these requirements, including appropriation provisions outside the relevant subcommittee’s jurisdiction.

You can view the entire bill here.

This is by no means the first time legislation of this nature has been introduced to the committee in the House. Last year, a virtually identical proposed bill, known as “One Subject At A Time” was introduced to the House Committee on Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in 2019. Proposing laws intended to prevent misleading or incomplete titles in legislation is not new.

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As initially discussed there are a great many examples of “One Bill One Subject” laws in existence, some with variation in the title, but each with almost identical language. To show your support for One Bill One Subject, phone and email your representative today. Get help automating this process here (it’s super simple!)

Legislative Intentions

‘Legislative Intentions’ refers to how comprehensible the proposed law is, to make sure there is general understanding of the legislation both among lawmakers as well as the public. This makes legal language more accessible and readable to prevent corruptions that are buried in convoluted legal framework and language. Further, by improving the general readability, access to information improves, and with it the quality of law.

As more people are able to understand legislative language, more are able to truly participate, which improves political dialogue, enhances social awareness, and serves to engage citizens in the process and theory of law and lawmaking. At the very heart of One Bill One Subject is the notion that by limiting legislation to a single topic makes laws easier to read and understand for everyone.

One Bill One Subject legislation is meant to improve transparency for everyone from the congresspersons that need to understand and vote on the bill, to the public that has a right and duty to comprehend the laws of their government and activities and voting record of their representatives in the house and senate. This form of legislation is intended to prevent dishonesty in the lawmaking process by preventing two key forms of stuffing legislation. First, often referred to as a “rider”, is when a politician takes legal language that is not popular and has no realistic hope of becoming law and ‘stuffs’ it into another, much more popular bill.

The other practice this bill would affect is known as “logrolling”. Logrolling is the trading of favors, or quid pro quo, such as trading votes by legislative members to obtain action or passage of actions of interest to the legislative members.

These practices are potentially dangerous to policy-making because they can nurture a culture that uses political favors to advance political agendas, rather than the merits of the agenda or legislation themselves.

One Bill One Subject In Practice

One Bill One Subject practices are common. It is not easy to draft new laws that appeal to more than half of the congress while containing one subject and no special little Christmas presents to entice your pesky little congressmen to do good this year. 

This little piece of legislation would be extremely impactful. Currently, legislation often includes seemingly unrelated elements, sprawls off of topic, or includes irresponsible and even sometimes corrupt “earmarking”. The “One Bill, One Subject” proposed legislation seeks to prevent some of the opportunities available to legislators to hide unethical yet currently legal maneuvers in innocent-sounding proposals. It also prevents the sponsors or supporters of legislation from combining their efforts to realize completely unrelated goals. 

Supporters of “One Bill One Subject” and its predecessors contend that the notion is to prevent bills from including buried or misleading language, or betraying the spirit of the congressional role – to consider and debate potential policy and legislation in preparation to vote whether to endorse the matter on the floor or not. If the matter on the floor of the house or the Senate is not clearly defined, or sprawls off into multiple directions, those voting may be faced with the dilemma of supporting a fraction of the bill but opposing another fraction. The ultimate effect could be a more honest congress. 

It could also mean more gridlock. 

The federal legislative environment is so heavily dependent on practices like using riders, or earmarks, or logrolling to get the votes they need, it is likely that we will see far fewer bills getting passed during each session of congress as there will be fewer tools available to collect the votes needed to pass a bill. Along with this change would have to come a change in the very culture of the capitol. Those elected to congress have a duty to try to make decisions to benefit their constituents first and the nation second. Those members of congress are servants of their districts and states and must always keep that fact in mind, meaning that the interests of one may disagree with the other.

Existing “One Bill One Subject” legislation

Much has been written about jurisprudence regarding so-called “Single-Subject” legislation at the state level. Each year hundreds of challenges go before state supreme courts on grounds of violating single-subject rules.

Despite the well-meaning motivations of those that drafted and enacted these “One Bill One Subject” rules in the state constitutions, there is one pervasive hindrance to effective enforcement and practical application – ambiguity. How does one define a subject? It is, by nature, subjective. As can be seen in many examples in the states, there can be great difficulty in determining appropriate distinctions and handing down appropriate decisions.

Due to ambiguity, courts are consistently criticized for their handling of such cases. Accusations of inconsistency, and a failure to adequately justify their conclusions have led to suspicions of judicial misuse of these laws. Judges, wielding broad language, may allow personal beliefs or political affiliation to influence outcomes, potentially inviting a new form of corruption while still making Single-Subject bills very difficult to properly enforce.

Despite issues in the application of Single-Subject rules, if we examine the spirit and ethical intentions of the law, we can work to establish a functional and pragmatic approach to guide decisions made from the bench.

Such bills were intended to make subsequent bills more easily comprehensible, and accommodate relevant and comprehensive debate. It also seeks to improve transparency, accessibility, promote majority rule by reducing the influence of riders and logrolling. The goal is to improve clarity and eradicate misleading or confusing titles or language within a bill.

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