Just a Bill

This week, I could talk about how I was wrong when I tried to predict who Trump would pick for his Vice President, but believe me, the shame of my political prediction failures is enough. I could give you a summary of Governor Mike Pence, but just check out #PeriodsForPence and the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and you'll get the idea.

Instead, this week, I thought I would talk about something simpler. I'm in the process of switching jobs, and presenting at a conference this week, so this week is as good as any to talk about how a bill becomes a law!

I know you all probably watched Schoolhouse Rock, but I want to summarize the complicated process again.

I know you all probably watched Schoolhouse Rock, but I want to summarize the complicated process again.

Any Representative or Senator can write a bill and file it with the House they serve in. The bill is read once on the floor (twice in the Senate) and assigned to a committee. The committee will hold a hearing on it, and then chose whether or not to advance it to the House or Senate for a full vote. Once the bill goes back to the House or Senate for a vote, other legislators have the chance to suggest amendments to the bill, which are voted on by the full house. Once the bill has all the amendments, it advances to a third reading. Following the third reading, the bill is voted on by the full house.

Executive orders are a whole other animal, which are discussed in some detail  here .

Executive orders are a whole other animal, which are discussed in some detail here.

This complicated process means that there are many places where a bill can “die” or fail to advance. A bill can be introduced, but the leader of the House can choose to never give the bill a first reading. The committee a bill is assigned to can chose to not hold a hearing on the bill. If a hearing is held, the committee can chose to table the bill, and not advance it to the floor for a second reading. Amendments can be approved following the second reading that drastically change the nature of the bill, and prevent it from being passed on the third reading.  A bill can also be assigned to multiple committees, which means it has to go through the process of committee hearings and approval multiple times. This can all but guarantee that a bill doesn’t make it to the floor for a second reading. Once the bill finally moves through all committee hearings, and the amendment process, it can still fail a vote in the full house.

Sorry Bill, looks like the committee never held a hearing and you died.

Sorry Bill, looks like the committee never held a hearing and you died.

If a bill does pass all those steps, and is passed by the full house, it the goes to the other body, and the whole process begins again. Then, finally, once the bill passes both houses, it goes to the President’s desk for a signature, to officially make it a law. However, the President can choose to veto bills, an action that can only be overridden if two-thirds of both houses vote for a bill. So if a bill narrowly passes both houses with a 51% majority, it is unlikely to be able to override a presidential veto.

Another wrinkle is that the House and the Senate can pass different versions of the same bill. If that happens, the two houses have to go to conference, where they hammer out the differences in the bill and try to come up with a compromise that works for both houses. Once the conference agrees on the bill, the bill has to go back to both houses for approval, and only then does it go to the President’s desk for approval.

This is all to say that if there's a bill that you care about in Congress (like, I don't know, The Equality Act, which would eliminate discrimination against LGBT people) and you want to urge your Representative to vote for it, figure out where it is in the process first. Once you know what is happening to a bill, you can tailor your ask to your Representative. Congress.gov will let you search for bills by keyword, and will tell you immediately what is happening to them. And with this blog post, you have the lingo and knowledge to know what's actually happening to a bill!

On a last note, The Equality Act is currently in the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, where it has been since last September. If you care about the bill, you can see who sits on that subcommittee and urge them to bring the bill up for a hearing and vote on it, to send this important bill to the floor for another vote before it goes to the Senate for another vote, and then to the President...