So, y’all know that Congress just passed a big stimulus bill to purportedly alleviate the economic hardships of the “coronavirus” outbreak. As I was writing my recent post on that particular bill, I thought it might be helpful to give y’all a little overview of the legislative process. How does a bill actually become a law? What is really going on up there?
This is a more informational/educational post, one I believe is important for us, as American citizens, to know and understand. We don’t need to feel like our government is a mystery to us. And the first way to demystify what happens in Washington is to start educating ourselves on the basics of what our legislators actually do when making law.
Ok, so if you haven’t seen the School House Rock episode on YouTube called, “I’m Just A Bill” , you should. It’s a classic and does a very good job of briefly summarizing the legislative process.
The Constitution and the Legislative Process
What do I mean by “the legislative process”? Well, hopefully you all remember that legislate means “to make law”. So, that legislative process is the lawmaking process. This is the process by which our representatives come together, write and pass law. Quite frankly, this process is the most important job of government. This process is the reason government exists.
In Article 1, Section 2, the Constitution says, “The House of Representatives shall choose their speaker and other officers” and in Article 1, Section 3, the Constitution says, “The Senate shall choose their other officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the office of President of the United States”.
It is up to the members of the House and Senate to choose their own “officers” and “leaders”.
A quorum is required to conduct business. This means that there is a minimum of 218 members that must be present in the House for any vote to be made.
Article 1, Section 5 says: “Each House shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members, and a majority of each shall constitute a quorum to do business; but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the attendance of absent members, in such manner, and under such penalties as each House may provide.”
It is up to both chambers to make their own rules and structure their own methods of good behavior and punishment for bad behavior.
Article 1, Section 5 says: “Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two thirds, expel a member.
Each chamber must keep a journal of their proceedings.
Article 1, Section 5 says: “Each House shall keep a journal of its proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such parts as may in their judgment require secrecy; and the yeas and nays of the members of either House on any question shall, at the desire of one fifth of those present, be entered on the journal.”
If one chamber adjourns (for Congress to take a vacation or break during a Congressional session) for more than three days, it can only do so at the consent of the other chamber.
Article 1, Section 5 says: “Neither House, during the session of Congress, shall, without the consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting.”
Any bills that have to do with taxation or the finances of the country must originate in the House.
Article 1, Section 7 says: “All bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other Bills.”
The theoretical reasoning behind this is the following: the founders wanted the chamber most directly connected to the people to be the only chamber able to introduce laws that affect taxation. This was especially important since, at the time of the Constitution’s writing, the Senate was made up of Senators who were elected by state legislators.
This is the extent of what the Constitution says regarding the way that the legislative branch must conduct itself in the process of making law. In other words, everything that the rest of this article details—the legislative process—can change at any time, is subject only to the will of the members in Congress, and, outside of the instructions above, are not subject to any Constitutional directives.
2. Who Can Write A Bill?
So, here’s the crazy thing about who can actually draft a bill. Anyone can draft a bill. And many people do draft bills! Remember, bills are just potential law. So, who usually does draft legislation?
Legislators. Their staff. Committees. Lobbyists. Executive branch officials. Interest groups. The President or his staff and anyone else…
3. Who Can Introduce A Bill?
Ok, so now that you understand that anyone can write a bill, who must actually introduce the bill? Only a member of the House can introduce a bill in the House and only a Senator can introduce a bill in the Senate.
In the House, a member places a copy of the bill in a box called the hopper. Yup. That’s it! It’s an old mahogany box in the House chamber.
It has some interesting historical roots. “The hopper represents the initial phase of a bill’s journey toward refinement, or final passage, much like grain when processed into flour. The co-opting of the term hopper fit neatly within the context of an agrarian society, and 19th- and 20th-century American lawmakers, a significant percentage of whom had agricultural backgrounds, likely could have appreciated the analogy between grain and bills.” Take a look at this website for more details.
In the Senate, introduction is similar. In the Senate, a bill is introduced by placing it on the presiding officer’s desk or by formally introducing it on the Senate Floor.
4. Where Does the Bill Initially Go After Introduction?
In the House, the Speaker has the privilege of assigning bills to specific committees. (At the end of every legislative day the Clerk of the House collects the bills and assigns each one a number. From there, the bills are referred to committee by the Speaker with the aid of the Parliamentarian.) Remember, all of these rules, even the power the Speaker has here, are up to the members themselves to decide.
In the Senate, the bills are assigned based of off topic. So, a bill that has to do with agriculture goes to the agriculture committee. There is a little less grey area in the Senate than the House.
Committees are of utmost importance in Congress since most of the legislating happens in the committees. They are what I like to call “mini-Congresses”. Everything happens in Committees. The committee can either:
approve legislation and report it back to the parent chamber, with or without amendments;
reject the measure outright;
simply not consider it;
or set it aside and write a new bill on the same subject.
Around 90% of all bills die in committee. In the 113th Congress (2013-2014) 3,712 bills and resolutions were introduced in the Senate and 6,924 in the House, but only 496 and 667 measures were actually reported by committees of the Senate and House, 13.4% and 9.6%. And that doesn’t even count what doesn’t pass once it gets to the floor (imagine if we didn’t have checks and balances. How many new laws would we be subject to every year?!). Here is a list of the Committees in the Senate and a list of the Committees in the House.
6. Start All Over Again
The law making process is a slow, tedious and cumbersome process. Nothing happens quickly and it’s met with challenges all along the way. And this was the original intent of its design. The founders didn’t want laws, that would affect all Americans, to be passed rapidly.
So, once a bill makes it through committee and to the floor of either the House or the Senate, it must be voted on (voice vote in the Senate, electronic in the House) by the whole chamber. In the House, there must be a simple majority for the bill to pass (218), but in the Senate, because of the threat of the filibuster, 60 Senators (a super-majority) is required. I can get into these details another time. Once this happens in one chamber, the bill has to go to the other chamber and the whole process starts all over again.
If it makes it through both chambers successfully, it goes to a conference committee where members from the House and Senate debate and discuss the bill until they come up with a version that both chambers agree upon. And then it goes to the President’s desk for approval or veto.
This is the process that the “The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act” had to go through. And you probably noticed how quickly it passed. Fascinating right? How, in times of crisis, Congress can move at such a rapid rate.
The lawmaking process is the governing process. It is key to government. We need to be educated on how it works so that we can better understand what is going on in our government. What goes on up in Washington doesn’t have to feel like a mystery to us and simply understanding the legislative process is step one to demystifying it.
The Liberty Belle