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What You Need to Know About Christmas Tree Legislation

by Countable | 12.25.17

Gridlock in Congress is nothing new, but sometimes all it takes is a little festive spirit to get lawmakers to work together. That’s where so-called "Christmas tree bills" come in, and while they can be useful, they’re also often abused, leaving constituents with no choice but to put their lawmakers on the “naughty list.”

What is a Christmas tree bill?

A Christmas tree bill is a piece of legislation that has had many amendments or riders attached to it, which are oftentimes unrelated to the bill’s original purpose. Those amendments may be added to attract the support of particular lawmakers, or provide something that an interest group has been lobbying for. That can make Christmas tree bills controversial depending on their contents, as some lawmakers and citizens may prefer to see an interest group get a lump of coal rather than a gift in a must-pass bill.

Christmas tree bills usually receive most of their "decorations" in the Senate, where lawmakers’ proposed amendments aren’t constrained by the germaneness rule that requires all amendments offered in the House to be related to the bill’s original purpose. Once they’ve been adorned with riders, Christmas tree bills frequently end up getting passed in December when Congress is rushing to finish its business before adjourning for the year prior to the start of the holiday season. Tax packages and budgets are frequently considered that time of year, so as a result they're frequently transformed into Christmas tree bills.

No one really knows when the term "Christmas tree bill" first came into use, but a 1956 Time Magazine article was titled “The Christmas Tree Bill” and discussed a farm bill that was the target of more than 100 amendments. A Democratic Senator from New Mexico, Clinton Anderson, remarked that “This bill gets more and more like a Christmas tree; there’s something on it for nearly everyone.”

Want to send your lawmakers a seasonal greeting or tell them why you hope they get their tongue stuck on a frozen flagpole? Use the “Take Action” button below!

— Eric Revell

(Photo by Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau / Creative Commons)

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