Salt Lake City Drinking Liberally

Promoting democracy in Utah one pint at a time.

January 29, 2009

How a bill becomes a law – College Edition

With the legislative session fully upon us, you will begin to hear terms such as “the bill was circled” or “the law passed committee” in the paper.  This kind of stuff is far beyond the School House Rock episode that explains the basics of lawmaking – no there is no cynical lines about a lobbyist paying a representative at step three – just the simple (though expanded) process.

We begin at the beginning. A legislator (either a Senator or Representative) must propose a law, no one else can. They can either have a bill fully written, have a bill that is written but does not have any way of paying for it, or they could have a bill title alone (this third type is called a “boxcar” as in an empty train boxcar).

Once a bill is written it is read for the first time on the floor of either the House or the Senate, depending on who actually wrote the bill – this consists of saying the bill number and title. This is considered the bills “first reading.” From there the Speaker of the House (for bills written by Representatives) or the President of the Senate (for bills written by Senators) sends every bill to a committee – usually (but not always) to a committee related to a bill. These committees focus on things such has transportation or health care, just to name a few.

The committee is the first place a bill is tested. The bill is heard by anywhere from eight to 18 legislators and they decide if the bill should continue to be heard. As you can imagine this is one of the most critical moments for a bill as four to nine legislators can kill a bill at this moment. These committees are generally stacked in the favor of the ruling party as the leaders of the chambers choose who sits on what committee.

Assuming a bill makes it out it is read for a second time on the floor of whichever chamber. In the House, they simply reread the bill title and name; in the Senate they reread the bill and then vote on the bill for the first time.

In the House the bill is generally allowed to be read for a third time. This third time is when the whole House finally votes on the bill for the first (and last) time. If the bill passes the House, it is sent to the Senate where the bill needs to be picked up by a Senate sponsor – no sponsor? Well the bill dies there.

Going back to the Senate now. Assuming the bill is read for a second time and passes, it is generally allowed to be read for a third time and, again, the Senate will vote on the bill to see if they will pass the bill on to the House. If it does, there needs to be a House sponsor to spearhead the charge there.

Now why would they go through all of this second and third reading nonsense? Well, the reason is simple, a bill can be amended by anyone at anytime. If someone offers an amendment, the body reviewing the bill votes to accept or reject the bill – this can happen in a committee room, on the floor of the House, or the floor of the Senate. Very often legislators will vote for an amendment while voting against a bill; they may vote for an amendment to make the bill less desirable; they may vote for a special type of amendment, called “striking the enacting clause” (the enacting clause is the part of a bill that makes it a bill and not just a bunch of people complaining) that kills a bill on the spot. By discussing the bill three times, legislators are able to adapt to new changes and choose how they wish to proceed.

Whew! Now let us assume that the bill makes it out of one chamber and into the other…well the bill goes through the same process all over again. If no changes are made and the bill passes, it is sent to the governor for either signing into law or a big ‘ol veto.

If changes are made to the bill, but it still passes both chambers a special “conference committee” is put together to make a compromise on the bill – conference committees usually consist of the person who proposed the bill, the sponsor in the other chamber, and two or three other legislators from both chambers who have wildly different points of view on the bill. Once it leaves the conference committee both chambers vote on the compromise (though you are not allowed to make amendments). If it makes it through it goes to the governor.

Of course there are all sorts of legislative procedures that can further slow down or stop a bill (the most common being circling wherein a bill is removed from the list of bills to be considered that day) but this stuff requires the grad school edition.

As you can see, getting a bill passed is actually quite a complicated thing, full of pitfalls and death around any corner. The thing is, it was built that way on purpose. It is designed to be difficult in order to at least make an attempt to kill bad bills before the become bad laws. Frankly we should be happy it is hard for good laws to pass because it ensures that the bad ones (usually) don’t sneak through.

by @ 10:43 am. Filed under Local Issues

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