Advocacy in action

How a bill becomes law

With all of the discussion lately regarding the 2007 Farm Bill, I thought it might be a good opportunity for a little civics review. The legislative process often seems somewhat convoluted and laborious. And it is. But if we as an association (or you as individuals) are interested in becoming involved in shaping the laws that affect how you practice your profession or conduct your daily lives, it’s important to understand the process by which those laws are formed.

There are two basic types of legislation: bills and resolutions.

  • A “bill” is a piece of legislation, introduced in either the house or senate, that creates public policy. Anyone can submit language for a bill, but only a member of congress can actually introduce legislation. Two important types of bills are authorization and appropriation bills.

– Authorization bills do just that: they “authorize” the formation of a program and set funding limits.

– Appropriations bills, on the other hand, provide the funds for the authorized programs. Appropriations bills must originate in the house.

  • Resolutions can be passed by one or both houses of congress and express the sentiment of that chamber. Resolutions typically do not have the force of law.

After introduction in one or both houses of Congress, a bill goes through the following steps to become law:

1. Committee action. Once introduced, the bill is referred to a committee or committees having jurisdiction over its subject. Most of the work on a bill is done at the committee level.

2. Subcommittee action. A committee will generally refer the bill to a subcommittee which has a narrower focus than the full committee. Three main steps occur at this stage:

a. Hearings. Witnesses are called to testify about the merits and shortcomings of a bill.

b. Mark up. Committee members comment on the bill and can offer amendments. The amendments do not have to be related to the subject of the bill.

c. Reporting out. The members of the subcommittee vote on a final draft of the bill, including any changes and amendments. If a majority supports the bill, it is “reported out” to the full committee for consideration. If the legislation does not receive majority support, the bill dies.

The full committee then follows the same procedure to consider the bill. If approved by the committee, the bill is then reported out to the full house or senate.

3. Publication of a written report. The committee staff prepares a written report describing the intent of the legislation, its impact on existing laws and programs, and the views of dissenting members.

4. Floor action. The legislation is then placed on the house or senate calendar for debate by the full chamber. Rules for debate are set by each chamber. Members may add only amendments that are germane to the bill. Once a bill comes to the floor, supporters and opponents are given a chance to speak. In the senate, any member may filibuster, or speak against any piece of legislation, for as long as he or she wishes or until at least 60 members vote to end the debate. Following debate, a vote is taken to approve or defeat the bill.

5. Conference committee. Both chambers must pass identical bills in order for the legislation to be forwarded to the president for approval, so the house and senate will form a conference committee to reconcile any differences between their bills. Following reconciliation, both chambers must once again vote to approve the legislation.

6. Action by the president. The president has four choices upon receipt of the legislation. He may:

a. Sign the bill into law;

b. Veto the bill and send it back to congress with suggestions for reconsideration;

c. Take no action while congress is in session, in which case the bill will become law in 10 days;

d. Take no action and let the bill die after congress has adjourned for the session (called a “pocket veto”).

7. Overriding a presidential veto. If the president vetoes a bill, congress may, with a two-thirds majority in both chambers, override his decision.

So, in a nutshell, that’s how an idea becomes a law. It’s a long, drawn-out, complicated process with many subtle (and not so subtle) twists and turns. The process provides a number of places where stakeholders can get involved. Often, bills arise from stakeholder groups working with congressional staffers to propose legislation for consideration. Congressional members often seek out input from constituents and impacted groups to guage the merits and shortcomings of potential legislation. Congressional offices monitor the numbers of phone calls, faxes, or e-mails they receive concerning a particular piece of legislation. Stakeholders may also have an opportunity to suggest amendments to pending bills.

Although what goes on in the national and state legislatures may seem foreboding and distant, it has a significant impact on your livelihood and daily life. You should not be intimidated by the process or by your elected representatives. If it’s an issue that’s important to you, you should make sure you know where your congressional representative stands and that he or she understands the impact a potential piece of legislation has on you. In the next issue of Advocacy in action, we’ll describe some effective ways to communicate with your elected officials and offer some resources to help you stay in touch with the legislative process.

-- Harry Snelson, DVM