Friday, July 17, 2015

How A Bill Becomes a Law

July 17, 2015 

How A Bill Becomes a Law -- a 101 Primer on the Legislative Process

Hi everyone,

Was just thinking today about how complex our Legislative Process is and how little of it I actually learned as a high school senior in "Government Class."  My true education about the Legislative Process has come from working and advocating on Capitol Hill. Wow, was I green when I started working Capitol Hill --I had a lot to learn! I had never been to or watched a Congressional Hearing, I had never met with Committee Staff, let alone been fully aware of what they do versus regular staff, and I realized quickly that beyond "I'm Just a Bill", I had a lot of learning to do.  Luckily, people who work on Capitol Hill empathize with newbies.  They are very kind to answer questions, not shame a person when they don't know all the terms like "hopper" or all the procedures about "voting bells" (see picture above), and they never think a question is out of line or stupid.  ~ In the years since I first began advocating with the EDC, and in the years since I became Policy Assistant, and then later Policy Director, and Director of Social Media and Advocate Relations, I have never ever stopped learning about how things work on Capitol Hill.  I still have questions, I still have don't have all the answers when a staffer asks questions and from time to time, I still need to refer to "How Our Laws Are Made" to read the fine print about the Legislative Process (there's allllloooooottttt of fine print).

All that to say, I thought it might be helpful to share a 101 Primer on How A Bill Becomes A Law with anyone who is interested and encouraged to advocate for #AnnasLaw.  Below is borrowed from one of the best explanatory books about Congress, "Congress for Dummies"

(highly encourage you get a copy if you like to advocate on Capitol Hill).  If you find this overly simplistic, then please, by all means, join the nerd in me and (re-) read How Our Laws Are Made tonight ------>

Here is the Congress for Dummies explanation of How A Bill Becomes A Law:

  1. The bill is drafted.
    The bill must be introduced by a member of Congress.
  2. A member of Congress introduces the bill, and the clerk assigns it a number.
    Most bills never receive press attention after the introduction. Members of Congress often issue press releases regarding a bill’s introduction, both to generate publicity for it and to create a paper trail for their reelection campaigns.
    Other stakeholders who support or oppose the bill may get their opinions out too, either to make sure the bill is dead on arrival or to mobilize support to see it through to the next round.
  3. The bill is referred to committee and (possibly) subcommittee.
    The Speaker of the House and the presiding officer in the Senate are responsible for assigning a bill to a committee in their respective chambers. The committee chair may then assign it to a subcommittee.
    Committee assignments are sometimes obvious; for example, the ratification of a free trade agreement falls under the House Ways and Means or Senate Finance subcommittees for trade. But often, which committee has jurisdiction over a bill is less clear-cut. Because committees can bring newly proposed legislation to a screeching halt, supporters naturally favor assigning a bill to a committee in which it’s likely to receive the most support.
  4. Committee hearings are held.
    A committee hearing is the primary method for members of Congress to learn about an issue. Hearings usually include a panel of stakeholders from different sectors who discuss the many aspects of the bill in consideration. Hearings are usually required to be publicly accessible unless specific sensitivities, such as national security concerns, come into play.
    Most bills never leave this stage. Instead they are tabled, which means set aside and likely never looked at again.
  5. The subcommittee and full committee members mark up the bill.
    When hearings are complete, subcommittee and committee members examine the bill line by line and offer amendments. While some amendments may be intended to genuinely improve the bill (at least in the proposing member’s opinion), less politically palatable amendments known as poison pills may be offered with the intent to wreck the whole process and force supporters to vote against their own legislation later on.
  6. The bill is reported out and calendared.
    The bill and a written report about it prepared by the committee are sent to the relevant chamber and placed on its calendar.
  7. The bill is read on the floor of the chamber, and amendments are debated.
    As with the committee process, floor procedures are used by supporters in Congress to try to push a bill to a vote with minimum commotion and by opponents to effectively kill it in its tracks. This step is the final chance for stakeholders to influence the text of a bill before it goes to a vote.
  8. The bill goes to a full vote.
    Like any vote, congressional votes are moments when each side scrambles to mobilize supporters and make sure they show up to make their opinions count. While private sector and special interest groups obviously cannot vote themselves, they work to galvanize support within Congress, the media, and public opinion.
  9. A bill that passes goes to conference committee.
    The House and Senate must both pass the same bill for it to be forwarded to the President’s desk. But at this stage, they likely have passed similar but still different pieces of legislation. To reconcile the differences, an ad hoc committee of members from both chambers (a conference) comes together and negotiates a common text.
  10. The House and Senate vote on the revised bill.
    After the conference committee hammers out a common text, both chambers vote on the revised bill. If the bill is approved, it’s then delivered to the President’s desk.
  11. The President signs or vetoes the bill.
    Even if he signs a bill into law, a president often uses so-called signing statements to attach his own interpretation to the measure, which can affect how it’s implemented.
    If a president vetoes a bill, Congress may override the veto with a two-thirds majority in each chamber.
  12. The bill becomes law.
    Laws often leave it up to federal bureaucrats and regulators to determine the exact way in which it will be applied. Drafting such regulations is another key element of Washington’s policymaking process.

    We hope that was helpful to read --if you have any questions about the Legislative Process, please just ask.

    Have a healthy night, ~Kathleen MacDonald, Director of Social Media and Advocate Relations

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