Saturday, October 5, 2013

How a Bill Becomes a Law in Washington DC

How a bill becomes law:

The intent here is to outline the path a bill takes to become a law. And along the way, show Advocates where they may intervene, with testimony and evidence, to voice their position. And show the dangerous steps in the lawmaking process. Further, just so folks know there are many and, ors, buts, etc. that take place which are not shown below. If folks want to read about them see HERE -or- HERE.

HINT: As you learn the path a bill takes in becoming law, there is one critical thing every effective Advocate needs to keep in mind, "Always Know Where your target Bill is in the Process," only then will you know WHEN and WHO to direct your voice to; absolutely critical....

With that said:
1) Introducing Bills:
House: Any Member, Delegate or the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico in the House of Representatives may introduce a bill at any time while the House is in session by simply placing it in the ''hopper,'' a wooden box provided for that purpose located on the side of the rostrum in the House Chamber. In the House, it is no longer the custom to read bills-even by title-at the time of introduction. The title is entered in the Journal and printed in the Congressional Record, thus preserving the purpose of the custom. The bill is assigned its legislative number by the Clerk. The bill is then referred as required by the rules of the House to the appropriate committee or committees by the Speaker, with the assistance of the Parliamentarian. At times a House member may rise to enter remarks about his/her bill.

Senate: In the Senate, a Senator usually introduces a bill or resolution by presenting it to one of the clerks at the Presiding Officer's desk, without commenting on it from the floor of the Senate. However, a Senator may use a more formal procedure by rising and introducing the bill or resolution from the floor, usually accompanied by a statement about the measure.
Bills are assigned number: HR ___ (House) or S____ (Senate). When lawmakers enter remarks which are important because they usually include statistics and other material (without sources) which can be important to Advocates later on. Co-sponsors, if any, may also make remarks, again important.
Advocates should gather "Remarks" as they are grounds for further debate and Advocates can use these to show good/bad points made by the Lawmaker who sponsored/co-sponsored the bill.

2) Referral to Committee/s The bill is referred to the appropriate Committee or Committees. When a bill is assigned to multiple committees, each must address issues relevant to their purpose, and the bill cannot move forward until all assigned committees have finished their work.

3) Committee: The Committee may assign the bill to a sub-committee if there is one which handles the topic of the bill. Committees always have more than they can handle. The Chairman decides when the bill will be addressed, if ever. Personal preferences can cause a bill to die. Or, the Committee may not act on the bill, either way the bill then dies in committee.

4) The Committee gathers information, and may hold public hearings to gather testimony (written testimony is also acceptable), or listen to speakers from related agencies or organizations, but public hearings ARE NOT required.
Advocates need to be careful when addressing a committee, to make sure issues and evidence presented to a committee is relevant to the purpose of the committee. But, this is an excellent time for Advocates to have their voices heard, and remember, written testimony is acceptable and will be reviewed by the committee during the next step (Mark Up). (See End note for contacting Committees)

5) Committee "Mark Up": The phase when committee members meet and "mark up" the bill and add their suggested amendments to it, if any. If the work so far has been by a sub-committee, then the bill goes to the full committee where they may repeat the procedure with their thoughts. The full committee votes, and if passed, then the bill goes to the House or Senate floor. Sometimes there is no action on a bill, hence it is "Tabled" and dies in committee.
Advocate Note: Because committees can add -their own ideas- to a bill at this stage, and they may use input from various sources (noted elsewhere), they also use input from other bills that have been introduced but are moving nowhere, if they are related to the bill currently under consideration.

This occurred during the Adam Walsh Act. A bill (HR 4815) presented by an Ohio Lawmaker (Rep. Gilmore) (which was moving nowhere at the time) to "classify" registrants based on the crime first committed rather than any sort of analysis of their current risk to the community, was MORPHED into the AWA during Committee work. No need to explain what resulted from this action..
Committee Report: Assuming the committee passes the bill, the chairman has staff prepare a written "Report" which describes the intent and scope of the bill, impact on existing laws, and the position of the Executive Branch, and views of any dissenting members. For some bills this step may be omitted. (ex: Naming Post Offices)

6) Floor Action:
House: When a bill comes to the "floor" it is scheduled chronologically on the calendar. The House has a few different "calendars" and the Speaker and Majority leader decide if, when, and in what order, bills will be heard.

Senate: When a bill comes to the "floor" it is scheduled chronologically on the calendar. The Senate only has one calendar and bills are heard in the order they were added to the calendar.
Suspension of the Rules: When a bill comes to the "Floor" the Sponsor may request to "suspend the rules and pass the bill" which is only supposed to be used on NON-CONTROVERSAL bills. i.e., Naming of Post Offices. However, this is too often used (misused) to pass bills that should be debated by the FULL HOUSE/SENATE. This procedure -allowable- allows only those PRESENT (whether it is a quorum or not) to pass legislation into law. The Adam Walsh Act was passed this way..

7) Floor Debate: Rules govern how debate is handled and the time allotted. During debate members may suggest "Amendments" which are individually debated and voted on, accepted or rejected. Debate may be waived, it depends on the issue.
Floor Amendments: The problem with these amendments is, that, the public has no chance to review them or comment on them before they are voted on, on the floor. One very bad example was HR 5072 CLICK to see what happened there.

8) Floor Voting: After debate is finished, and any Amendments are resolved, the membership votes, and the bill is passed or defeated. Voting is usually by machine, but sometimes it is by "Voice Vote" and if so, it is impossible to know -individually- who voted which way, because only the total "yeas" and "Nays" decide passage and nothing is recorded.

9) Referral to the other chamber: Once a bill gets through steps 6 -8, then the bill is referred to the other chamber (i.e., the House or the Senate) for their approval or defeat. The other chamber follows the same procedure as above and may approve the bill as received, reject it, ignore it, or change it.

10) Conference Committees: When a bill has been referred to the "other Chamber" after being passed by the "First Chamber" (House/Senate), then the bill is reviewed, and if the "New Chamber" agrees with it as written, they send it back to the "Other Chamber" saying -we agree-.
However, when there is disagreement with significant parts of the bill, or the whole bill, a "Conference Committee" is formed (a certain number of folks from both chambers) to reconcile differences between versions (House /Senate). If folks cannot reach agreement, the bill dies. When agreement is reached -with amendments- a "Conference Report" is prepared describing amendments. Then the full House/Senate must approve the "Conference Report."

11) Off to the President: Once both the Senate and House members agree (identical versions) (and that only happens with a lot of back-slapping and concessions and maybe some horse-trading with other bills; reality) the bill is sent to the President.
If the President agrees with the bill, he signs it and it becomes law! Or, he can take no action for 10 days, while Congress is in-session, and it automatically becomes law!

If the President disagrees s/he can veto it, OR, if s/he takes no action after Congress has adjourned its "Second Session", it is a "pocket veto" and the bill dies. Congress can "override a veto" by 2/3rds roll call vote, of members PRESENT if that amounts to a quorum.

Thats it folks, a pictorial is HERE (without the Advocate notes).
eAdvocate, and as always we are open to corrections or suggestions.

End Note: Contacting Committees. A little unknown fact is, that folks may contact a Committee Clerk and ask to submit "Written Testimony and Other Evidence" for the Committee's consideration. In Washington DC, for the: Senate call 202-224-3121 -- House call 202-225-3121 AND ASK for the clerk of the Committe where your bill is being considered (List of all Committees), then ask the Clerk how you may submit something to have your voice heard. It is that simple.

For now, have a great day and a better tomorrow.
eAdvocate (BACK to the Top Page)

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