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Filling in What Schoolhouse Rock! Missed: How a Bill Becomes a Law

August 1, 2019 Teri Lyn Hinds NASPA

I started as NASPA’s Director of Policy Research and Advocacy in January 2017, just days after President Trump’s inauguration. Since then, I’ve seen a noticeable increase in civic participation in every aspect of my life. The record voter turnout for the 2016 midterm elections seems to back that observation up. I may be simply more attuned to noticed civic participation because of my position, but I rather believe that it’s because “We, the People” are recognizing that our representative democracy only works when we participate.

The process for how a bill becomes a law can be confusing if all you remember is the neatly linear path of the bill in Schoolhouse Rock! When news stories report that lawmakers have "introduced" or "passed" a piece of legislation, does that mean it will eventually become a law? Understanding how legislatures work, and the stages and hurdles a bill must overcome to be passed can help you evaluate any legislation’s likelihood of passage.

Bicameral Legislatures

Legislatures represent one of the three branches of government at the federal and state levels in the United States. Most legislatures in the United States, including Congress, are bicameral, meaning they have two chambers, both of which must pass legislation independently for it to become law. In addition to Congress, 49 of the 50 state legislatures are bicameral. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use Congress as an example as it's the legislature everyone has in common.

The Senate has two representatives per state and that's it, no matter how many people are in each state and no matter how much land the state covers. In the Senate, each state is weighted equally in terms of their number of votes.

At the federal level, the Senate tends to be the more bipartisan of the two legislative chambers because neither party usually holds enough votes to pass legislation without votes from the other party. It also behooves Senators to work cooperatively on regionally important issues, when Senators from states not effected might have less incentive to support something that might cost their constituents without benefiting them. Working cooperatively helps the Senate to move legislation forward that may have differential effects so that the benefits to states balance out overall.

The federal House of Representatives, by contrast, is proportionally distributed based on state population as determined by the decennial U.S. Census. Each state, no matter how small in population, is guaranteed at least one representative in the House. As the population of the United State grew, Congress increased the number of representatives in the House until 1911, when Congress fixed the number of voting Representatives in the House at 435. States with more people have more representatives, resulting in regionally important issues affecting areas with lots of people seeing a better chance of being passed.

Introducing Legislation

Legislators can generally introduce legislation on any topic they may want. Sometimes lawmakers introduce legislation to demonstrate their commitment to a particular cause that is popular with their constituents. Similarly, lawmakers may introduce legislation they know may never proceed to make a public statement about a political conversation they or their constituents think is important.

While each state may have slightly different rules about whether legislation starts in one chamber or the other, legislation in Congress can be introduced in either chamber at any time. It’s not uncommon for identical legislation to be introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate at or near the same time in hopes that the bills will pass from both chambers concurrently and speed their passage to the President for final signature. Bills generally are introduced by a single legislator, but they work with their colleagues in the chamber to secure co-sponsors and build support for bills to help signal their likelihood of passage.

Once introduced, legislation is referred to a committee with jurisdiction over the topic of the legislation. In Congress, legislation related to higher education is generally referred to either the House Committee on Education and Labor or the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

The Role of Committees

Most legislatures are responsible for considering more legislation than they can reasonably have time to debate on the full chamber floor. Committees consisting of smaller sets of members do most of the investigative work to draft legislation, hold hearings, and make recommendations to the rest of their colleagues within the full chamber. As we’ve noted previously, committees are partisan creations in most cases and the party that holds the majority in the full chamber gets to automatically hold the majority of seats on all committees.

The partisan divide in a chamber, especially in legislatures where the majority is a small one, may mean that legislation passes easily out of committee, but faces challenges in securing enough votes to pass out of the chamber. If it's a topic that the majority party doesn't feel they need to require a party-line vote on, this is especially true. When members can vote on their conscience (which should be informed by the voices of their constituents) instead of being required to toe the party line, members of either party may "crossover" on individual legislation. Therefore, a bill passing out of committee doesn't guarantee that legislation will pass the chamber. A lot of legislation passes out of committee and is never considered by the full chamber.

Passing One Chamber

Once bills pass out of committee, the chamber leadership will decide whether and when to schedule a debate and a vote on the bill for the full membership of the chamber. In some cases, a favorable report out of a committee is all that is needed for the chamber leadership to schedule a vote. In other cases, the leadership may hold bills to leave floor debate time open for other issues or because they don’t want a piece of legislation to advance. In today’s increasingly partisan Congress, floor votes have become less frequent and more contentious, so lawmakers will sometimes offer their bills up as amendments to other legislation to make it more likely to pass. Other lawmakers may find it easier to support a package of legislation that includes some aspects they support and others they are less in favor of rather than negotiate support for each bill by itself.

For a piece of legislation to become a law, it must pass both chambers. Just because a piece of legislation has passed one chamber does not mean it will pass the other and become law. A lot of legislation passes through one chamber with ease, only to sit unmoving in the other chamber.

Conference Committees

If each chamber passes similar, but not identical bills, the governing committee leadership (chairs from the majority party in the chamber and the ranking member on the committee from the minority party) from both chambers meet in a conference committee to come up with a compromise version of the bill. The conference committee works to find a compromise between the bills passed by each chamber without drastically changing the nature of either original bill. The committee leadership will work closely with their party leadership to ensure that members of their party will support the compromises they make in the conference committee. The conference bill must then return to and pass both chambers again before being sent to the President for signature.

When to Engage in Advocacy

Determining the likelihood of a bill becoming a law depends on its likelihood of successfully passing through each part of the legislative process. Knowing where legislation is in the legislative process helps people know where they can focus their efforts if they want to oppose or support it, so understanding the process will make you a more effective advocate.

When you see a news story saying that "lawmakers" have "introduced" or "passed" a piece of legislation. Some key questions to consider include:

Does the majority party in the chamber support the issue and stance the legislation represents? Is it something central to their platform or messaging? If so, you can find out who is on the governing committee the bill is referred to and contact those members with your opinion or advice on the legislation.

Was the bill passed out of committee? If so, you can find out whether and when it might come up for a vote in the full chamber and reach out to your elected officials in that chamber to share your thoughts on the bill.

Was it passed through one chamber or the other? If so, find out if similar legislation is moving in the other chamber and repeat the questions and steps above to target your advocacy efforts toward lawmakers in that chamber.

Bill-tracking websites such as govtrack.us or openstates.org are a great place to start in answering the questions above. Each week NASPA staff analyze recent trends in state and federal legislation as they pertain to higher education, so please feel free to reach out with specific questions and guidance regarding your advocacy engagement assessment. Check out NASPA’s Policy & Advocacy for the latest information and NASPA policy positions.