A POLITICAL COMMENT ON ...
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.
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 energy.senate.gov/public.)
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.
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.