Ah, SchoolHouse Rock, the American Educational Television Program that will always have a special place in my heart. Last week the House of Representative passed H.R. 1628 – “The American Health Care Act” a.k.a “Trumpcare”. I wanted to brush up on the process of how a bill actually becomes law because while President Trump may be taking a victory lap, this bill is still a long way before it reaches his desk. Here’s a basic guide to how bills become laws in America:
Step 1: Everything Begins with an IDEA
A bill starts its journey as an idea. It can be an idea as simple as modifying the speed limit or as complex as health care reform. Whatever the idea is, the important thing is it can come from anyone. It can come from the President, a member of Congress, a teacher, the bartender, you or me.
Step 2 – Allow Me to Reintroduce Myself: My Name Is …Bill
While the idea can come from anyone, the bill can only be introduced formally by Members of Congress. Congress being: The 435 members of the House of Representatives and the 100 Senators in the Senate. So whether it’s the President or a private citizen, a primary sponsor in Congress is needed to officially propose this idea as a written piece of legislation. (Note: Only members of the House of Representatives can introduce legislation regarding revenue and taxation. Other than that, it’s fair game for the House and Senate).
Step 3 – Stop….Committee Time
After introduction of the bill, the Speaker of the House of Representatives or the Parliamentarian in the Senate assigns the bill to a Congressional Committee(s) – smaller subgroups of members with the purpose of dividing work. Given the sheer number of bills introduced (since January 2017: over 4,000), there would be complete chaos without committees. There are 4 types of committees but to keep things simple we’ll only talk about what’s known as Standing Committees for now. These are committees categorized by speciality or expertise.
There are 20 Standing Committees in the House and 16 in the Senate, across areas like Agriculture, Finance and Veterans’ Affairs. So for example, a government reform bill will be steered toward the the committee meant to handle that area. The Committee Chairman has the power to decide whether the bill continues to live or die. If it proceeds further, hearings are scheduled where interested parties can express views and opinions on the bill. The committee members can consider further changes or rewrite it completely and then vote. If approved, it leaves committee to the full chamber for debate.
Step 4 – Time to Talk
At this stage, the bill is read and proponents and opponents have the time to argue for or against the proposed legislation or propose amendments. Once the dust settles, final voting commences and the majority decide if it proceeds further.
Step 5 – Rinse and Repeat
“Trumpcare” has made it to this point. And I suppose there is reason for Republicans to celebrate because as you can see, there are multiple points where this thing could have died. But essentially steps 2-4 are only the beginning. The whole process must start again in the Chamber of Congress where the bill did not originate. This means this version of the bill will be assigned again to another committee and subject to more debate, changes, amendments and votes. If the final version of the bill is also approved by the committee and full chamber, one of two things will occur:
- The bill will go back and forth between the Congressional Houses until both can agree and approve on an identical piece of legislation
- The bill is assigned to a Conference Committee – dedicated to reaching a compromise and sending a final form of the bill back for a simple yes/no vote to both Chambers.
Step 6 – The Executive and the Law
Once there is a final singular version of the bill, it is sent to the President where he has 10 days to provide his signature or veto. If he signs it, it becomes law. If 10 days pass, and Congress is still in session and the president does not sign the bill, it becomes law automatically. In the case of a veto, it will go back to both chambers of Congress where they will have the opportunity to override his decision with a two-thirds majority vote.
The Legislative Body
And that’s essentially the basics of the process folks. If you’re thinking: “Wow, that’s slow, clunky and messy”, thats exactly what the framers of the Constitution probably intended. This process forces meaningful debate and discussion and forces compromise and concession in order for progress to occur. Or I suppose, complete and total obstruction.