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  Geotimes -July 2007 - Political Comment

The Life of a Bill
Allyson K. Anderson

Growing up in the early 1980s, I came to know how my government worked by watching my favorite “Schoolhouse Rock!” short, “I’m Just a Bill.” Although I still adore that cartoon, I have since learned that how a bill becomes a law is a tad more complex than that song first led me to believe. For those of you who have only a vague recollection of the procedure described in your high school government class, I present a brief primer on bills originating in the Senate using S. 1321, the Energy Savings Act of 2007, a bill that the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources recently proposed.

I’m Just a Bill, Sitting in Committee
Of the many hundreds of energy-related bills that have been introduced on the Senate floor this year, several were referred to the energy committee for action. Originally, S. 1321 came to the committee as four different bills: S. 731, S. 962, S. 987 and S. 1203. (The full text of these bills can be viewed on the Library of Congress Web site:

As the “Schoolhouse Rock!” song states, after bills are referred to committee, they face two fates: action or inaction. Bills are initially placed on the calendar of the committee to which they have been assigned. A legislative hearing is then held on each of the referred bills, usually by topic. In the case of the four aforementioned bills, three hearings were held, related to biofuels, energy efficiency, and carbon capture and storage. Should the committee fail to act on the bill, it essentially dies in committee.

Following each of the hearings, the committee holds a mark-up session, during which revisions and additions are made to each bill. If substantial amendments are made, the committee can order the introduction of a “clean bill,” which includes the proposed amendments. This new bill has a new number and is sent to the floor while the old bills are discarded. Following mark-up, the committee staff prepare a written report explaining why they favor the bill and why they wish to see their amendments adopted. The report is then sent back to the Senate and is placed on the legislative calendar.

In the case of this set of legislation, the four original bills were repackaged into one larger energy bill. This bill consists of three topics or titles: Title I: Biofuels for Energy Security and Transportation; Title II: Energy Efficiency Promotion; and Title III: Carbon Capture and Storage Research, Development, and Demonstration. Prior to and during mark-up, senators presented amendments to alter the new combined bill. A final bill was compiled and passed through the committee as S. 1321. (The full bill text and committee report can be found on the energy committee’s Web site at

Floor Action: Getting the Vote
After the new bill is placed on the legislative calendar, the Senate Majority Leader determines when each bill can be debated. Members can speak as long as they want and amendments need not be relevant. Entire bills can therefore be offered as amendments to other bills that have absolutely no relevance to the original content of the bill. Unless cloture, or a time limit, is invoked, senators can use a filibuster, or endless requests for procedural motions, debate or other tactics to delay and finally defeat a measure by talking it to death. S. 1321 was debated on the Senate floor in June.

Reaching Consensus
Once the debate stops, a vote is called. If passed, the bill is then sent to the House, unless a similar measure is under consideration there. If either chamber does not pass the bill, it dies. If the House and Senate pass the same bill, it can then be sent to the president. If the House and Senate pass different bills, they are sent to Conference Committee.

Members from each chamber of Congress form a conference committee and meet to work out the differences. The committee is usually made up of senior members who are appointed by the presiding officers of the committee who originally dealt with the bill. If the Conference Committee reaches a compromise, it prepares a written conference report, which is submitted to each chamber. The conference report must be approved by both the House and the Senate.

I’m a Law
A bill becomes law if signed by the president, or if not signed within 10 days when Congress is in session. If Congress adjourns before the 10 days and the president has not signed the bill, then it does not become law. If the president vetoes the bill, it is sent back to Congress with a letter listing his reasons. The chamber that originated the legislation can attempt to override the veto by a vote of two-thirds of those present. If that chamber overrides the veto, it goes to the other chamber. If the veto of the bill is overridden in both chambers, then it becomes law.

The reality of lawmaking is that many thousands of bills are introduced in Congress each year, with only a small portion ever becoming law. I personally am quite thankful that it is so difficult for bills to become law and feel indebted to our founding fathers for devising such a good set of checks and balances. Many moments are built into the legislative process when lawmakers and their constituents can have input into a bill. A key to good citizenship is knowing how your government works. In case you forget, just sing a little “I’m Just a Bill” for a refresher.

Anderson is the William L. Fisher 2006-2007 American Geological Institute Congressional Fellow. She is working for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Library of Congress Web site 
Energy Committee’s Web site

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