"I kind of expected this to be filled with poison pills, but the bill's only about three-and-a-half pages long, and it's pretty straightforward," Michigan Republican Rep. Peter Meijer said in a selfie video while walking away from the Capitol on Tuesday night. The bill in question was the Respect for Marriage Act , which the House had just passed with every Democrat plus Meijer and 46 other GOP lawmakers voting "yes."
The act "says with regards to a marriage between two individuals—regardless of sex, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of race, regardless of national origin—if it is legally performed in one state, it has to be recognized for the purposes of state-based actions such as taxation in another state," Meijer continued in his clip. "That's it. There's no compulsion. There's no threats to religious freedom," he said, touting the bill as "the right choice" in terms of liberty, limited government, and avoiding the "chaos" that would come if Supreme Court decisions protecting interracial and/or gay marriage were revoked .
Legislators in both parties should take a lesson from Meijer's explanation of his vote: This bill is small. It's simple. It accomplishes its goal with a light touch, neither grabbing for a sweeping victory nor cramming together a panoply of unrelated partisan priorities.
Consequently, it nabbed the support of one in four House Republicans despite being sponsored by 179 Democrats. And though it's not yet clear how the bill will fare in the Senate, its passage there isn't wholly inconceivable because of this narrow scope.
More legislation should be built on this small-scale model. With a highly polarized but closely divided Congress (and country), including a few Senate moderates who wield disproportionate power, keeping bills small could be a way around some of our legislative stagnation. Unlike the oligarchic omnibus bills and gazillion-dollar, whole-platform legislative packages that have come into vogue in recent decades, narrowly tailored bills would make space for frequently shifting, issue-by-issue coalitions. Lawmakers could dart back and forth across the aisle as conscience and district realities permit. It could replicate, at least to a small degree, the pragmatic flexibility of a multi-party democracy.
The Respect for Marriage Act is an instructive case because the 47 yes-vote Republicans are far from a uniform block. A few, like Meijer and South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace, have something of a libertarian edge. Others decidedly do not, like Never-Trumper Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming or New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the latter of whom has run toward former President Donald Trump at least as fast as Cheney ran away from him.
Although these other Republican lawmakers haven't explained themselves as thoroughly as Meijer did, many of them undoubtedly voted on the same rationale. The Respect for Marriage Act lets them endorse keeping gay and interracial marriage legal— both of which most Republican voters want—without supporting a broader political agenda that would raise those same voters' fears about religious liberty.
Make a small bill with no poison pills and, it turns out, fewer people will find it hard to swallow.
That's even true in election years, like this one, though obviously representatives' campaign calculations will vary considerably by district and timing, especially in the run-up to a competitive primary race. Still, a small bill could have advantages here, too, allowing politicians to defend only the votes they want to defend instead of getting dragged for omnibus compromises. And anyway, very few votes will outweigh incumbents' advantage among the base. With this bill, for instance, even the minority of Republican voters who oppose legal same-sex marriage are unlikely to find such a closely tailored bill objectionable enough to jilt their own party's nominee.
That's the case for small bills for the minority party in Congress. What about the majority, particularly one with rivalrous power centers who can't quit each other in our two-party system? For them, it's in the contrast between the swift, bipartisan House passage of the Respect for Marriage Act (once marriage again became a live issue) and Democrats' year of internal squabbles around President Biden's Build Back Better agenda.
Large, multi-subject bills tend to become either too big to fail (if they mostly concern established programs and agencies, as in omnibus spending bills) or too big to succeed (if they show any hint of policy ambition, as with Build Back Better). The former is undemocratic, the latter unproductive, and both contribute to our political dysfunction, frustration, and animosity.
Sticking to smaller bills wouldn't be possible in every circumstance, nor could it be a panacea. But if we really want our government to be more responsive and our partisanship less negative, we could give smaller bills a shot.
After all, 47 votes from one party in favor of any bill pushed by the opposing party that's more substantive than renaming a post office feels like a rare achievement these days. Lawmakers should decide if they want to keep disguising their party platforms as sprawling legislation—or if they'd like to make passing important and popular little bills a lot less rare.
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