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The Give-and-Take of Successful Legislation

During the writing of HOW A BILL IS PASSED, I tried to keep my sights set on the human stories behind the movement of successful legislation. Everything in the legislative arena is driven by politics, and my book on the give-and-take of bill passage makes note of that fact.

Most successful bills reflect either the politics of today or the politics of tomorrow. The middle school readers who are the main audience for HOW A BILL IS PASSED will be made aware of how our politicians use bills to modify government practices to suit their particular views.

Accordingly, I settled on two pieces of real-life legislation as examples of the process. The 1999 Ed-Flex bill relaxed some restrictions on the use of federal education subsidies, over the objections of those who expressed concerns that the money would thereby be denied to lower income children.

At the state level, I examined the 1999 Oregon Charter Schools bill, which was hotly opposed by teacher's unions, but was eventually signed into law by Governor John Kitzhaber. In both instances, I described the often rocky mechanics of a bill's movement through the legislative bodies, from the moment it lands in the hopper to the day it arrives on the chief executive's desk.

I show that government is a fluid entity, not something set in concrete. Laws that meet our needs must be constantly invented, reviewed, updated, and revised. While the mechanics of legislative action may seem mysterious, especially to the young, the truth is successful bills are generally the result of consensus among competing groups within our society.

Along with an overall picture of a complex process, I have made every effort to provide young readers with telling details that will help them understand what adults are doing when they commence making laws. Political Science studies have consistently shown that it is our very brightest students who are most keenly interested in public affairs.

It is my fervent hope that these students will find HOW A BILL IS PASSED and my companion volume, HOW TO BECOME AN ELECTED OFFICIAL, worthwhile and eye-opening resources.


To help understand the complicated process that leads to passage of a bill, we will examine a couple of pieces of real life legislation. The first bill is a Congressional Act, HR 800. It was also known as The Educational Flexibility Partnership Act of 1999. HR 800's supporters and opponents in Congress called it "Ed Flex" for short.

Ed Flex passed during the 106th session of Congress in 1999 and was signed into law by President Clinton on April 29. As is common with major pieces of federal legislation, Ed Flex started out as two separate bills. The first introduction of the bill came in the United States Senate on January 21, 1999. Senator Bill Frist was sponsor, along with 44 co-sponsors.

The Senate version was numbered SB 280, while the House version was HR 800. Senators ceased action on their version of the bill on March 11, 1999. Later they substituted the House version for the Senate bill. What finally passed the Congress was the House version of Ed Flex, HR 800.

The Ed Flex bill was the first major legislation to make it through the Congress in the aftermath of the Clinton impeachment trial. The idea behind the Ed Flex bill was to allow the states more freedom in spending the federal education subsidies they receive. The strings that come attached to federal government money are called "mandates."

Allowing more freedom in spending was a shift from past practices. Usually, when the federal government doles out part of its vast resources to the states, numerous requirements go along with the money. The Ed Flex bill was crafted to eliminate some of the mandates so the states might experiment a bit more with their school money.

Along with the reductions in mandates came increased accountability for academic performance. In other words, the federal government would let states use their education money to see if they could encourage better student test scores. They would do this by funding special programs in public schools.

Another bill we will follow also relates to education. This is a state bill, known as SB 100, the Oregon "Charter Schools" bill. SB 100 passed the Oregon State Legislature in 1999 and was signed into law by Governor John Kitzhaber on May 27, 1999.

Both bills reflect national concerns about education. There is popular movement underway in education to explore alternatives to traditional public schools. Presently, the movement takes many forms. However, the main thrust of the movement is to put public money into the hands of people who promote alternatives.



A bill is a proposed law. Politicians discuss, debate, and vote on bills in legislative bodies around the world. Before any new law may be enacted, it must be drafted in a simple written form. Members of the legislature must know what they are voting on. The idea that proposed laws should be considered in written form began in Roman times. Two thousand years ago, the Romans had a legislative body called the Senate. In the Roman Senate members debated laws proposed by the consuls and later by the emperor.

In the Latin language, the word "Senate" means old men, or a group of old men. The Romans believed that an elected council of elders was needed to examine laws, to make sure they were wise and in line with tradition. To be eligible for membership in the Roman Senate, a person had to be a male citizen.

Senators also had to be very rich. For a long time Romans made their own laws, much as Americans do now. After the Roman emperor Augustus died, the military slowly took over the empire. Laws were decreed by whoever happened to be the emperor. The old Roman Republic eventually became a military dictatorship.

The ancient Roman writer Tacitus mentions bills in his major first century works, The Annals and The History. In Book XV of The Annals, a Senator, Paetus Thrasea, speaks approvingly of the "Cincian bill, the Julian laws, and the Calpurnian enactments."

It is customary now to refer to the simple written form new proposed laws take as a bill, following the Roman model.

The Roman Senate is long gone. Nothing like it existed before it appeared and for a very long time, there was nothing like it after it vanished. Kings and rulers made laws that suited them. People obeyed or were punished.

Currently, some of the oldest continuous legislative bodies are in the United States of America. Every year, our legislatures take up thousands of bills for discussion.

There are many other legislative bodies in the United States besides the state legislatures and the Congress.

These bodies are local boards, city councils, and county comissions. They do not consider bills when they make laws for their governments. The laws they craft are called ORDINANCES. Bills are for state and national legislatures only.

There are fifty separate state legislatures in the United States and one federal Congress. The territories also have legislative bodies. Guam, Samoa, and Puerto Rico are among the most active of these bodies. The size of legislatures varies from state to state. The smallest membership belongs to the unique single chamber legislature of Nebraska, with only 49 members.

The largest membership is the enormous legislature of tiny New Hampshire, with 424 members. That ratio pencils out to one legislator for about every 2,900 people. New Hampshire has the third largest legislative body on earth, exceeded only by the British Parliament and the Congress.

The Congress of the United States is huge, as befits a nation of nearly 280 million people. There are 535 members of the Congress, 100 in the Senate and 435 in an equal chamber, called the House of Representatives. States are assigned two Senators each and Representatives proportionate to their population.

All of our legislative bodies meet on a regular basis to consider the passage of new laws. During the meeting time of a legislature, called a session, members are allowed to introduce their own bills. A member who introduces a bill becomes the SPONSOR of that bill.

Members will often seek out other members to ask them to sign their names to the bills they plan to introduce. The signers thereby become co-sponsors. Having a lot of co-sponsors on a bill will help its chances of passage. However, it is no guarantee.

Every time a legislative body meets, a vast number of proposed law ideas are put up for deliberation. When a member puts a bill before the body, it is said that the bill has been INTRODUCED.

Once a member has decided to introduce a bill, it must be written up in the special bill form. This is done by a team of lawyers hired by the legislative body. The team of lawyers goes by different names in the various legislatures. In the State of Washington, they are called Code Revisors. In other states they go by the name of Legislative Counsel. In the Florida state legislature, they are simply called Bill Drafters.

Although each legislative body does it a bit differently, the basic written form for a bill in the United States is well established. Perhaps the simplest form is the one used by the Congress. At the top of every bill is the number of the Congress that considered the bill. The first session of the 106th Congress, for example, began in January of 1999. One of the bills introduced into Congress that year was H. R. 905, a piece of legislation to reauthorize funding for The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The letters in H. R. 905 signify "House of Representatives" and not, as it is often assumed, "House resolution." A companion measure, S. 249, was also introduced in the Senate. It is not unusual for similar or identical bills to be introduced in both chambers.

The next part of the bill actually spells out which House of Congress originally considered the bill. In the case of H. R. 905, the bill said "IN THE HOUSE OR REPRESENTATIVES" and then listed the introduction date of March 2, 1999 and the sponsor, Rep. Michael N. Castle of Delaware.

Then the words "A BILL" appeared on the form and a brief summary said what the bill was about. The summary for H. R. 905 said that it directed the Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency to provide funds for the operation of a 24 hour telephone hot line, to collect statistics, and train law enforcement agencies in the recovery of missing children.

The final part of a bill is the body, or text. This can say a lot of different things. Usually it spells out in detail what the bill does or what existing laws it changes. The bill can provide effective dates or give itself a name. H. R. 905 gave itself a name, saying that the act may be called the "Missing Children Protection bill."

After introduction, a bill will always be published in its special form. The special form is designed to make it easy for members and the public to know the purpose of the bill.

Besides member bills, many ideas for new laws come before a legislative body from government agencies. These agencies often have long lists of requests. They would like to do things in a different way or obtain authority to enlarge their operations. Sometimes they want to change a regulation, rule, or procedure. Legislators handle many agency bills, which are part of their regular government housekeeping chores.

These agency bills usually come to a state legislature as PRE-SESSION FILED bills. They are generally considered important and are almost always given a committee hearing.

Another source of pre-session filed bills are the licensing boards, councils, and commissions most states have established to regulate professional groups. Like the state agencies, these authorities often want something from the legislature that pertains to their area of responsibility.

The interim committee is still another source of pre-session filed bills. An interim committee is a special legislative committee that works on a project between regular sessions.

Whenever a legislature meets, the members almost always have a huge stack of bills already facing them. Pre-session filed bills patiently wait for the attention of the newly elected legislators. Once the members are seated, there will be still more bills piled on.

Copyright 2001 by Mike Bonner