Legalese — How a Bill Becomes Law

Those of us over 40 who fondly remember “Schoolhouse Rock” have some basic idea of how a bill becomes a law.  “I’m just a bill, sitting here on Capital Hill….”  Remember that guy?  If you do, or if you don’t, that version is a little simplistic.  How do committees fit in?  What happens if language is added along the process?

Here’s a completely made up example of an absurd bill and how it would travel through the Georgia Congress.  Please do not think that anything here actually did or would happen:

In the State of Georgia, let’s say Senator Smith wants to file a bill promising everyone free ice cream on Fridays.  He would then go to the Office of Legislative Counsel, which has attorneys who advise legislators on legal issues regarding the bill and ultimately draft it.  Senator Smith then files his Ice Cream Bill with the Secretary of the Senate.  The day after it is filed, the Ice Cream Bill is formally introduced and its title read out to the Senate.  The Ice Cream Bill is then assigned to a committee – let’s say here it is assigned to the Committee on Frozen Treats*, which is a subcommittee of the Health and Human Services Committee. 

The Ice Cream Bill is then formally considered by the Committee on Frozen Treats.  It may hear testimony or have public hearings about the pros and cons of the bill.  The Committee can then recommend  that the bill should pass, that the bill should NOT pass, hang on to it and not do anything, or say it should pass but only if there are amendments. 

Since all Senators like Ice Cream and free stuff, let’s say they give a “Do Pass” recommendation to the bill.  It is then sent to the Rules Committee, which decides which bills are considered by the whole Senate and when.  The Rules Committee, eager to get a cone of butter pecan ASAP, puts it on for Friday, first thing.

Friday comes, and the bill’s title is read.  The bill is then debated and amendments can be made.  Senator Smith, it turns out, comes from a long line of dairy farmers, and wants to promote the consumption of dairy products.  Senator Jones, however, has been influenced by the ice cream parlor lobby and objects to the bill as an unfunded mandate.  As a result, the bill is amended to reflect that it shall be paid for with a bake sale in the Congressional Lobby on alternate Tuesdays.  The bill is enthusiastically passed.    

It then goes over to the House.  Representative Williams in the House Committee for Frozen Treats is concerned about dairy allergies and wants to make sure that Italian Ice is available for lactose intolerant constituents.  The bill is amended to include language that makes sure that sufficient quantities of Italian Ice are kept on hand.  It passes through the Committee, and then the House, where it is sent back to the Senate to approve the Italian Ice language. After a brief debate about whether the term “Italian Ice” should be rephrased as “water ice” for cultural sensitivity purposes, the bill passes and is sent to the Governor for his signature.

The Governor has three choices – he can sign the bill and make it law.  He can ignore the bill, and then it just becomes law by default.  Or, he can veto the bill, which requires a two-thirds majority of the members of the Senate and House to overcome.  In this case, Governor Johnson vetoes the bill, and makes a grand and eloquent speech about the increasing incidents of American obesity and how Congress really ought to spend its time on things like Education and the Budget instead of nonsense like this.   

But you get the point which, in this case, has nothing to do with the bill itself, but the route the bill traveled to become law.  Or not.  But I do suddenly have a craving for Fudge Ripple….

*Not a real committee.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice or political opinion.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.  

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