How a Bill Becomes a Law

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Bills before Congress, state legislature or local bodies, (also known as legislation), start as ideas on how to best improve or alleviate societal problems, or to fund programs.  These ideas may originate from the legislators themselves, think tanks, special interest groups, or even individual citizens.

Once a legislator has an idea in mind, he or she often invites relevant interest groups to meet and discuss the proposals.  These meetings typically involve the legislator’s staff, who often seek outside groups’ general support, technical expertise, problem-solving, or a combination of these factors.

With a concrete idea in mind, the legislator’s staff will work with a legislative body’s non-partisan legal staff to craft the language of a draft bill for introduction.  Bills can impact different sections of the current legal code—the term used to represent all of the laws for a given body (e.g., the federal United States Code, or the Florida code of laws).  Thus, drafting the legal language to ensure the bill achieves its stated intention and maintains or changes the existing law in a very precise way may be challenging, technical, and go round and round.

Following the successful drafting of the legislation, the legislator who proposed the bill often seeks additional support from colleagues.  The legislator introducing the bill is known as the “lead sponsor.”  When this legislator convinces colleagues to formally endorse the bill, they become known as “cosponsors.”  Only legislators from the same legislative body may co-sponsor a bill.

The United States Congress is comprised of two legislative chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate.  When bills are introduced to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, they are known as “H.R.” for short and assigned a number following the acronym.  In the Senate, bills are designated by the letter “S.” prior to the number of the bill.

After a legislator submits a bill, the clerk of the legislative body will read it as part of the legislative body’s official calendar and assign it to a committee.  Legislative leadership decides which committees will consider a bill based on the subject matter and potential impact of the bill.  The process of actually “reading the bill” is typically deemed to have occurred without orally observing it.

Part 2

In the last edition of AACAP’s Advocacy Update, we talked about how a bill is introduced.  After a bill’s introduction, it is assigned to a committee or committees.  In this edition, we will examine the Congressional committee process.

A committee is a group of Representatives or Senators who are organized in a sub-category of Congress based on issues.  Committees are tasked with vetting and examining particular issues or bills before they are brought to the respective “floor,” or full legislative body of the House of Representatives or the Senate.

Committees further designate their work through a process of subcommittees that are specifically tied to the broader committee’s charge.  For instance, Representatives Chris Collins’ (R-NY) and Joe Courtney’s (D-CT) bill, H.R.1859 – “Ensuring Children's Access to Specialty Care Act of 2015,” which would include pediatric subspecialties - including CAPs in the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) loan repayment program - was referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.  An aspect of this committee’s jurisdiction is health-related bills.  This particular bill was then referred to the Subcommittee on Health.

After a bill has been referred to a committee, and as appropriate, the proper subcommittee, the next step is to hold a hearing on the bill if the chairman agrees.  This is an important step as committee members can publicly hear, question, and discuss the bill’s strengths and weaknesses.  During a hearing, invited witnesses give a short five minute speech on their thoughts on the bill, answer questions from the committee members, and often enter into the record a longer typed statement.  (Many state legislatures permit the public to sign up for testimony on legislation, Congress does not and is invitation-only).

Following a bill’s hearing, the next crucial step is for the committee to hold a markup.  A markup is when the full committee meets and members are able to offer amendments, or slight alterations, to the bill.  Committees rarely hold markups unless they expect the legislation to advance to the full legislative chamber.

Decisions about the committee process are determined by committee and subcommittee chairmen, often in consultation with the broader chamber’s leadership and sometimes in consultation with the minority party’s members of a committee, also known as “ranking members.”  The power of the calendar is important to the legislative process; there are not requirements that bills be heard or marked up, only that they be assigned to a respective committee.  Most introduced bills never receive the courtesy of a hearing and simply exist in limbo.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our legislative process education series: floor action.