How a Bill Really Becomes Law

Rich Galen

1/5/2011 8:25:45 AM - Rich Galen

When our 11th grade social studies teacher, Mr. Vinnie Mirandi walked us through the lawmaking process it sounded so simple:
-- A Representative or a Senator has a good idea for a law.
-- He or she introduces it.
-- It goes to the appropriate committee.
-- The committee approves it.
-- The bill comes back to the floor.
-- All the Members vote on it.
-- If it passes it goes to the other Chamber.
-- The other Chamber votes on it.
-- If the identical bill passes there it goes to the President who signs it with about 27 different pens and,
-- A bill has become law.

Easy-peasy, extra cheesy.

There is only one part of that which is actually true: A bill is introduced by someone who thinks it's a good idea.

After that it is referred to a committee (or committees if there are overlapping jurisdictions). If the bill was introduced by a member of the minority, then it will often be re-introduced by the chairman of the committee of referral with his or her name on it.

The bill will be sent to a subcommittee where the Members will discuss it, argue about it, amend it and, if they still like it, send it back up to the full committee where the Members will discuss it, argue about it, amend it and, if they still like it, send it back to the floor for a vote.

This is where things get really tricky.

In the House the bill first goes to the Rules Committee. Every bill that comes to the floor comes with a Rule (so much time for debate, so many amendments by each side, whether introducing a substitute bill will be in order, and so on). The Rules Committee is always under the control of the Majority, so the Rule tends to favor that side of the aisle.

In the Senate there are no known rules, so a bill comes to the floor when the Majority Leader decides to bring it to the floor.

In the Congress which expired at noon today House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid often bypassed the whole messy committee thing and had massive 2,000 page bills drafted in secret offices, by mysterious participants, who inserted cryptic elements, with wholly unpredictable results.

This is why the Senate needs to rethink its place on the planet. The actual rules of the Senate are only really understood by two people: The Senate Parliamentarian and a minor clerk in the Library of Congress … and they don't agree.

As an example, Senate rules permit a change in Senate rules by simple majority only on the first legislative day of a new Congress. After that it takes a two-third vote. Like a treaty.

So, the Senate Democrats are trying to figure out how to change the filibuster rules so that Republicans can't (with their 47 seats) tie the chamber up in knots.

But, they don't want to change the rules so much that when they lose control of the Senate after the 2012 elections and the Democrats are in the minority they can't tie the Senate up in knots as they have been so ably taught to do by the Republicans.

Today is the first legislative day, but there appears to be (at this writing) no consensus among the majority Democrats how to do this. Oh, my. The clock is ticking. Whatever shall they do?

Stop. The. Clock.

By recessing at the end of each day, rather than adjourning at the end of each day, the clock effectively stops because the Senate will still be on its first legislative day.

This is not a new trick. In 1980 when, according to CNN, the late Sen. Robert Byrd was Majority Leader he stopped the clock and kept the Senate on its first legislative day from January 3 all the way to mid-June.

That's why bills sail through the House and get bogged down in the Senate.

I'm OK with that. Someone once said: "The nation never sleeps so soundly as when the Congress is in recess."

Or when the Senate is stuck on its first legislative day.