Imposing Limits: Bill-Limit Reform Good Step, But We Can Still Expect the Frivolous and Crazy

You might wonder why it was necessary for legislators to introduces thousands of bills each session—before House Speaker Beth Harwell put a stop to the practice this year with a limit.

The short answer is why not? It didn't cost them anything, it was an easy way to please campaign supporters, lobbyists, and special-interest groups. And it was also a way to generate fodder for their next campaign brochure.

Harwell limiting each legislator to 15 bills will prevent a lot of mischief.

Lobbyists provide a useful function for the Legislature. They offer information to the part-time group with little research staff. Some of my best friends are lobbyists. But just as there are good and bad legislators, there are good and bad lobbyists. The bill limit may cut down on some influence lobbyists have on the course of a legislative session.

It has not been unheard of for a couple of lobbyists to get together and cook up a bill that affects special interests with deep pockets. They find a willing legislator to introduce the bill. Then one lobbyist goes and finds a client to pass the bill and the other goes and finds a client to oppose it. Regardless of the outcome, the lobbyists get paid. Legislators may be less likely to use one of their slots to introduce a bill just as a favor to a lobbyist. Not that they won't look favorably on such a request if they have gotten campaign contributions from the lobbyists' clients. But it may cut down on the number.

Some lobbyists also get a bill introduced in order to gin up enthusiasm among its dues-paying members. Bills are sometimes introduced to solve a problem no one knew they had—like making sure employees can carry guns to work.

It is likely, given the limit on bills, that legislators will stop introducing bills just because some supporter back home asked them to drop one in the hopper. These are the bills legislators have never had any intention of pursuing, but they take up staff time and they added to the gross weight of 5,000 bills filed.

It has been suggested by Tennessean columnist Gail Kerr that Harwell's limit will "put the brakes on crazy." That is, legislators may be less likely to introduce frivolous bills if they have a limited number. That may be true, but then there are legislators who only introduce frivolous bills and they will likely continue. I think you can still expect to see bills that make us the butt of late-night comic monologues. (At what point will The Daily Show with Jon Stewart open a bureau in Nashville? We've already had a bill introduced this session to arrest federal agents enforcing federal gun laws.)

The limit may have some negative aspects. There are workhorses and show horses in the Legislature. The workhorses that usually carry dozens of bills and do the hard work (while the show horses are doing press interviews about crazy stuff) will also be limited to 15 bills.

There are major lobbying firms that bring serious legislation on real issues. They can't just go to the one or two knowledgeable legislators they count on. They will have to hunt up House members to place all their bills. Some of these firms may have a dozen clients. They may find themselves entrusting a bill to a backbencher or a show horse because the workhorses are full up.

You may also see more bills amended on the House floor because a separate bill on the subject couldn't get a sponsor. These are dangerous. Usually an issue introduced on the House floor that hasn't been vetted in committee, reported by the press, or is of unknown origin, turns out to have unpleasant results in months to come.

But the benefits of Harwell's reform far outweigh the negatives. Local bills are exempted; Gov. Bill Haslam's administration can introduced all the bills necessary to keep the state running.

It might result in some drones in past sessions becoming worker bees.