How the Legislative Process Works

Legislative ProcessLegislating is a messy business. As Otto Von Bismarck once said, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made”. But it’s a messy business because it involves people who represent lots of other people with different points of view. And this process has to accommodate them all.

There are a lot of moving parts (and people), and many steps along the way that an idea must take before it can become a law. The result is that it is more difficult to change things than it is to defend the status quo. But knowing how the process works will make you be better equipped to have an influence on the things you care about when the time comes.

Here’s a basic breakdown. Generally speaking, the legislative process begins with an idea or a concern, which might have been passed on to a lawmaker by someone in the general public, or initiated by the lawmaker themselves.

The Federal and State Level:

Committees: The vast majority of legislative work is done on committees. As soon as any measure is introduced by any lawmaker it is usually assigned to the appropriate committee that deals with that subject matter. Public hearings begin here, changes are made, and delays or even defeats are possible.

In most cases committees are where legislation dies, as most bills never make it out. If you have lawmakers friendly to your cause on the committee, they may be able to either help “kill” a bill you don’t like by keeping it bottled up in committee, or help get it passed out to the “full body”.

At this point in the process, members of the committee considering the bill you’re concerned about are your targets for grassroots lobbying pressure. Committee Chairman are even more valuable, as they can usually control which sub-committee (if any) the bill may be referred to and whether or not the issue is even heard by the whole committee, (such as deciding whether or when to schedule hearings on the issue, or an actual committee vote). They can also be critical in influencing how other committee members will vote.

As a grassroots activist, you can have an impact at this stage by personally contacting committee members and attending hearings on the proposal and speaking out to help shape public opinion.

The Legislative Calendar: Once favorably recommended by a committee, a bill is scheduled by legislative leaders (usually by a “Rules Committee”) for floor debate by the body. Your involvement at this point could include contacting the key decisions makers, such as the Speaker of the House, Senate President Pro Tempore, Rules Committee members or legislative aides involved in these decisions. Focus on the people controlling the legislation.

Debate and Floor Action: Once a bill passes out of committee it is usually put on a schedule for debate by the full chamber (such as a House or Senate). At this point, all members of the legislative chamber can have an influence on the final outcome by participating in debate, offering and voting on amendments, and then ultimately voting on the bill itself. (At the local level, passage by an entire council or board is usually the end of the process.)

Referral: In cases at the state and national level, where the legislature is divided into two bodies, (House and Senate), when one chamber passes a bill, it is then referred to the other chamber for consideration, where the process starts all over again. This presents you with either another challenge or an opportunity, depending on which side of the issue you’re on, (offense or defense).

Conference: Conference committees are usually comprised of two or three members from each legislative chamber, and are created when there are differences between the versions of a bill passed by both bodies. The purpose is to iron out these differences and submit back to both chambers a version that they think can pass. Because there are so few of them, conference committee members can have a tremendous impact on the final shape of a bill, meaning you can concentrate your lobbying activity on a very small group of lawmakers at this point.

Final Vote: Once the conference committee report is submitted, each chamber will then usually hold a final vote on a bill. If it passes both chambers with a simple majority it is then forwarded to the chief executive, (the President or a governor).

Executive Action: Usually the chief executive is required to take action by a certain time (either with a signature or a veto) or the bill automatically becomes law. Some states allow a “line-item veto,” which enables some provisions to be vetoed without killing the entire bill. If the bill is vetoed, the legislature has an opportunity to attempt to override the veto, (usually by a 2/3’s super-majority). This could make a huge difference to your strategy, depending on whether you’re on “defense” or “offence”. A strong expression of support or opposition at this point could help a chief executive decide whether to sign or veto a bill.

The State Level:

Although the state legislative process is very similar to the federal level, there are some differences. Generally, state legislatures have shorter legislative sessions than Congress, and state legislative officials have either very little or no staff. And the fact that these bodies are smaller and closer to home gives organized conservatives enhanced opportunities for activism and influence.

The Local Level:

While many of the same elements apply at the local level, there can be wide variances in the process in various cities, counties or school districts. The biggest difference from the federal and state level is that there is usually just one chamber to deal with, (a council or a board), rather than two. Of course that means few people to lobby…and officials who are elected from smaller districts and are more susceptible to organized local pressure.

To research how the process works in your area (or for your county or school board), contact your local council or board member and ask for information.

Conclusion

One of the most important things to understand about the legislative process is that it is designed to move slowly…and that’s a good thing! A slow, multi-step process helps prevent the passage of bad legislation. And considering how many bad laws we have on the books despite that fact, imagine how much worse it would be if things moved fast.

From a strategic standpoint, the key thing to remember is that a long process makes it far easier to play defense rather than offense. That means that it is easier to defend the status quo than it is to get something passed. In order for a bill to become law, it must “win” at virtually every step in the process, whereas those trying to “kill” the legislation often only have to win just once.

Knowing how the process works, understanding when, where and how (and on whom) to bring the heat is vital to having an influence on public policy at any level in our system. At each step there are different people who can advance or hinder your cause.

Invest the time in getting to know the players at each step along the way. It will pay dividends later.