American Basics

Lesson 3: Mom, Where do Laws Come From?

(Or The Legislative Process)

Hello Dear Reader!

Welcome to American Basics with your host, Consuelo (Connie) T. Tution.

So the election has you mad as hell and you won’t take it. You’ve been marching, tweeting, sending money to causes, talking to friends, venting like hell against El Cheetolini, the Hair Fuhrer,  you know, this guy:

You’ve been hearing the words bill and law being thrown left and right, and you’re screaming at the TV can someone tell me what’s the difference between a bill and a law? For those of you a little bit older, there was a Saturday morning series called Schoolhouse Rocks and one of the topics they covered was the legislative Process. If you want to see a less blabbety version of this post, press this link and you’ll watch the famous “I’m Just a Bill” Schoolhouse Rocks.

If you are still with me, Dear Reader thank you very much for staying and reading on through. So what is a bill? Plain and simple a bill is a proposed law. In order for a bill it has to go through both chambers of Congress and then to the President to become a law.

For the purpose of this  exercise, let’s take one of the Great Orange One’s pet project and submit, the Great, Beautiful, Magnificent, Pretty Much Useless Wall  through the Legislative Process. For the purposes of this exercise, we will use fake names of Members of Congress.

Step One: I Am Not A Committee

(or The House Committee Process)

Since despite all the assurances from His Cheetohness that Mexico will pay for the Wall, the only way that Mexico would “pay” for the wall is by raising a tariff on Mexican goods. If you remembered from Lesson 1, any bill raising revenue must originate in the House of Representatives.

So for the purposes of our exercise Congressman Aldus B. Williams from the 20th District in Texas proposes a bill to appropriate $15 billion to buy land for a wall that will follow the southern border of the United States and raise a 5% surcharge on all goods imported from Mexico to be used to build the wall. The bill is deposited in a box in the House of Representatives, where it is given a number (HR 15 for the purposes of our exercise), and is assigned to committees with jurisdiction on the matter.

In the case of our exercise, it would go to the following committees:

  • Homeland SecurityBecause it deals agencies within the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Ways and MeansBecause the bill proposes a tariff increase.
  • AppropriationsBecause it is appropriating $15 billion from the budget to purchase land to build the wall.
  • JudiciaryBecause border issues fall within this committee.

Once the bills are assigned to each committee, it gets assigned to a specialized subcommittee. The subcommittees hold hearings and report on the bill. Once the committees receive the reports, it goes through a process called markup.

Markup is the process in which the bill is read and amendments are debated and voted upon by the committee members. Once the committees vote on the bill, they report on it to the House of Representatives.

So you think we’re done? No Dear Reader, because before it goes to the House floor, the bill must go to the powerful Rules Committee which votes if it will allow it into the floor of the House of Representatives, how much time will there be for debate, how is that time allocated among the proponents and opponents of the bill, and how many amendments outside the committee process will be allowed into the floor of the House of Representatives.

Once the Rules Committee moves the bill to the floor of the House, or sometimes the Committee of the Whole (fancypants for the whole House for Representatives meeting semi-formally) where it is debated and voted up or down. If the House of Representatives is sitting as a Committee of the Whole, the Committee reports the bill to the Floor of the House where the final vote takes place.

Step Two: Here We Go Again

(or The Senate Process)

So the House of Representatives passed the bill, but we still need the Senate to approve it. So to the Senate we go, where the Presiding Officer announces that a HR15 arrived from the House of Representatives. As this is a big deal for the President, the Majority Leader decides to formally introduce the bill on the floor with a brief speech. Normally the bill is just announced that it arrived from the House and is assigned committees, but Senators love to talk!

Once the Majority Leader formally introduces the bill, the Senate assigns the bill to the following committees:

  • AppropriationsBecause the bill has a request for $15 billion to purchase land for the wall.
  • FinanceBecause in the Senate, tariffs and taxes are handled by this committee.
  • JudiciaryBecause border issues fall under the Judiciary Committee in the Senate.
  • Homeland SecurityBecause as the Oversight Body for the Department of Homeland Security, it would have to consider if a new agency would be required to deal with the wall.

The Committees assign the bill to specialized subcommittees which hold hearings and report on the bill. Once the committees receive the subcommittee reports, the bill goes through the markup process in the Senate, which is similar to the process in the House of Representatives.

During the markup process in the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Senators Clark E. Warren of Wyoming and James Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania get an amendment to HR15 passed. Instead of the 5 percent surcharge on all goods imported from Mexico, the estimated $10 billion cost to build the wall would come from cuts in the Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in that same amount.

The amended HR 15 goes to the floor where the Minority Leader threatens to filibuster the bill. What does that mean? It means that the bill cannot go to a vote except if 60 Senators agree to close debate. In the old days that meant that a Senator or a group of Senators stopped all legislative work by talking until the Senate agreed that the matter cannot proceed and moves onto another issue. The modern filibuster means that the bill is on hold until the filibuster is defeated, but other matters can be considered.

Initially, the minority sticks together, but after a few weeks and because an unexpected incident occurred at the border, the Administration was able to bully enough members of the minority to end the filibuster and is adopted on an almost straight party line.

So HR 15 goes to the President? In the words of the Drumpenfuhrer, WRONG!

There is the little issue of the way the wall is to be funded on the House and Senate versions of HR 15. The Senate sends back HR 15 to the House in the hopes that they agree to the Senate version of the bill. But guess what? The House of Representatives rejects the Senate amendments.

So is the bill dead? Not quite yet. The Senate and the House name a committee that includes members of both Chambers to hammer out the differences. They meet and hammer out the differences in what is called a Conference Committee Report.  The Report goes to both Chambers where they agree to the updated HR 15 with the compromises reached in the Conference Committee.

To 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

(or the President Signs or Vetoes)

Once HR 15 is adopted by both Chambers of Congress, it goes to the President where he can do two things. He can either sign the bill or veto the bill. In this case, as HR 15 is a proposal from the President, he signs it. Usually the President makes a big ceremony out of it, gathering people he thinks were important getting the bill passed, sometimes children or citizens to give it the “aw shucks” vibe to the ceremony. The President makes a big show of the event by using a different pen to sign each letter of his name, so that way he can give each one as a souvenir.

You may be asking yourself, Dear Reader, can the President wait months to sign a bill into law? The answer is no. The President has ten days (excluding Sundays) to sign a bill or it automatically becomes law without the President’s signature.

Let’s say that instead of El Cheetolini, we had Barry Obama sitting handsome at the White House. In that case, he would have vetoed the bill. Obama would have sent the bill back to the House of Representatives (where it came to life) with a written message saying why he would not sign the bill into law.

If the vetoed bill goes back to Congress, it can be passed despite the President’s veto if two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate agree to override it. If the veto is overridden or the bill is signed into law, it gets a number and is eventually added to the appropriate section of the United States Code.

There is a way the President can veto a law without sending it back to Congress and see if they can override it. Remember the 10-day period (excluding Sundays) the President has to sign or else the bill automatically becomes a law? If Congress is not in session at the end of those 10 days, a pocket veto occurs, which means that the bill is automatically vetoed. No ifs, ands or buts.

However, it would take pretty clueless leadership in Congress to let a pocket veto happen. The last time it happened was in 2007 when George W. Bush pocket vetoed the 2008 Defense Authorization Act. The Democrats thought by having a couple of Congressmen they were still in session. This issue was never resolved, and the Democrats instead of pushing the issue drafted a bill that met President Bush’s objections

So there you go, Dear Reader, this is how a bill becomes a law Next time we’ll discuss the difference between a law, a regulation, and an Executive Order.

See you next time on American Basics. Remember, knowing is half the battle.


by Rafael C.