Understanding American Politics: The Process
Forget What You Think You Know
Most Americans have a vague understanding of how a bill becomes law in this country, and the vast majority of those people owe their knowledge to the famous Schoolhouse Rock song. As someone who, both grew up in politics (grandson of a Senator, son of a Congresswoman), and began my career working in politics, I think it’s important to understand how things really work in Washington.
In this article, we’ll follow a fictitious bill from its beginning, all the way through to the time it becomes a law. Hopefully, this will help more people understand the way things work, and inspire you to become more involved in the political processes for your State.
Before We Begin: A Word of Caution
I have been fortunate enough to get great feedback from some of the amazing writers here on the HubPages community. I am always grateful for feedback; nothing beats logging in and seeing that little green number over the “comments” section. That being said, while I am grateful for the feedback, I’m also not an idiot; I fully understand what can happen anytime you try to have a discussion about politics.
Keep the partisan pot-shots to yourself, and spare us the regurgitation of the same old talking points. This article is about the process, not the ideology; take that to the forums, or better yet, write your own Hub advocating your personal views and opinions. Keep the discussion here (should there actually be any) limited to the process. Thanks.
Schoolhouse Rock: I'm Just A Bill
Step 1: John And Jane Have An Idea
Meet John and Jane, a young married couple from Florida. They both work: John sells cars, and Jane is a High School English teacher. They have two kids, a house, and a dog. They’re a remarkably average family and all is well in their world.
As a teacher, Jane thinks that all schools should require students to wear uniforms. She is dismayed by the increasingly sexual clothes that the kids are wearing each year, and how students whose family can’t afford the latest fashions are excluded and often ridiculed. She feels strongly that if all students were required to wear uniforms, grades/test scores would improve, and she thinks it should be a law. She tells John about her idea, and they decide to call their Congressman.
Step 2: Jane Calls Washington
Jane goes online to the U.S. House of Representatives website and finds the contact information for her Congressman: we’ll call him Congressman Smith. She sends Congressman Smith an email with her idea, and asks him to make it happen. This is where reality begins to differ from what most people think actually happens.
First, and I’m sure most of you already know this, in most cases, Congressman Smith isn’t the one who reads the email; someone on his staff (the fancy title is Legislative Correspondent, in actuality, it’s usually a low-level staffer or an intern) gets is and reads it. This is a “screening method” used for effective time management. Congressmen get hundreds, sometimes thousands of emails, letters, and calls each week, they depend on their staff to keep the “knucklehead” stuff off of their desk.
For this example, let’s say that the staffer who reads Jane’s email passes it on to Congressman Smith’s Chief of Staff (the “office manager” and senior counselor, who answers only to the Congressman). The Chief of Staff will then read it and see if it’s something that he/she thinks the Congressman would be interested in. If so, it’s at this point that someone will actually write a bill.
Once the bill is written, there are a bunch of things that happen, in no particular order, they are:
- The bill needs to be “scored” by the Congressional Budget Office (that’s the CBO you hear about all the time).
- The Party needs to be consulted (either Republican or Democrat) to see where the issues falls in the current legislative agenda.
- You need to check if there is any similar legislation currently under consideration.
- You need to look and see if you can find any cosponsors for the bill, in order to shore up support.
- You'll need a preliminary whip count to see where you are on a potential vote,
Step 3: Time To Take The Temperature
Now I know what most of you are thinking: “ahh, okay, now there’s a bill, I know what happens now- Congress votes on it”. I hate to burst your bubble, but no. Now is when the staff will “vet the bill”; that is to say they'll look into the issue that the bill raises, which can be substantially different than the bill itself. In this case, the bill concerns “School Uniforms”, but there could potentially be 1st amendment issues, labor issues (depending on the position of the teachers union), or a whole host of other problems.
Regardless of how it’s done: whether through polls, interviews, focus groups or town hall meetings, the Congressman's staff is going to try to ascertain the level of desire/interest on this topic in their district. If no one cares about this issue, then Jane and her bill are pretty much going to be out of luck. However, since it would otherwise end my article right now, let’s say that there are a lot of people who agree with Jane, and the Congressman decides to move on the bill and introduce it to Congress.
At this point is when the bill goes in the hopper (the big mailbox looking container on the House floor). It gets assigned a number, in this case let’s call it House Resolution 1792 (H.R. 1792), and then it’s read to the House. After the reading, it gets sent to the appropriate committees. For our bill, we're going to keep it simple: it's going to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Special "K": Time To Wait In The Lobby
Jane’s idea now has an official name and number (H.R. 1792), and has been read on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. For most people, this is a huge accomplishment, however Jane wants it to go even further and become a law… a little pushy, aren’t we Jane? I’m just kidding, Jane should be proud.
Now the bill is in committee, and this is where the wheels come off, and the real “political process” begins. The committee will hold hearings on the bill, they're generally open to the public, and they’re where the lobbyists and special interest groups start to come into play. For example, in the case of Jane’s Bill, the A.C.L.U. (American Civil Liberties Union or Anti-Christian Legal Unit, as I jokingly call them) testifies that forcing kids to wear uniforms is a violation of their first amendment right to freedom of expression.
The ACLU will bring in lawyers to argue that school uniforms are unconstitutional. They'll call experts to testify that uniforms lead to frequent nightmares and bed-wetting. They'll send representatives to the Congressman's home district to rally opposition. They'll go on the morning shows and blast Congress for trying to limit children's expression and imagination. They will basically do everything they can to keep the bill in committee as long as possible.
Are they doing it because they really care about the issue? No, they do it because they need issue to pad their agenda. We'll talk more about that in the next section.
As if the ACLU wasn't enough of a headache, there are also representatives from Cotton farmers, and clothing Manufacturers there lobbying in favor of the bill. They know that, if the bill passes, they'll make millions from the increased demand for their goods, so they hire lawyers and experts to come in and counter the ACLU. This process will go on as long as the hearings last.
Step 4: House Committees: Where Ideas Go To Die
Now if you’ve ever wondered why nothing seems to get done in Congress, pay attention, this will help explain it. Normally, it takes a while for a bill to make it through Congress, sometimes, it can take years to even make it out of committee, but Jane’s Bill is different.
Congressman Thomas is from Texas, and he's the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. He's been in Congress for over 25 years, and he barely won in the last election. His party wants to hang on to his seat, and so they've gotten themselves a new guy they like and now, Congressman Thomas is going to be facing serious pressure in the next primary, that is, unless he can do something to make himself look good for his constituents.
Congressman Thomas knows that if Jane’s Bill becomes law, companies that make uniforms are going to make millions of dollars. It just so happens that one of the largest manufacturers of school uniforms in the country is in Chattanooga, Tennessee: the home district of Congresswomen Davis.
Congresswoman Davis is on the Committee on Education and the Workforce, but she’s also the Chair of the House Committee on Agriculture, and there is an agricultural subsidies bill in that committee right now that, if it passes, would mean millions of dollars in Federal Funding for Congressman Thomas’s district in Texas, and that’s just the kind of thing that could get him reelected.
So Congressman Thomas goes to Congresswoman Davis and tells her that, if she'll push for an up or down vote on the agricultural subsidies bill, then he’ll do the same for Jane’s Bill, making tons of money for the single largest employer in her district.
Naturally, Congresswoman Thomas agrees and everything goes forward. Both bills come out of committee, are voted on in the House, and both of them pass. Now don’t get too excited, because if you watched the video at the top of this page, then you know what comes next… that’s right, the Senate.
Step 5: The United States Senate
We need to backtrack for a second, because to understand the process of how a bill makes it through Congress, you first need to understand the difference between the two houses of Congress.
The House of Representatives: These are representatives of their districts. They are there to serve the best interests of their constituents (the people who live in their district), nothing more. They are elected to two year terms; which means that every two years, the entire House of Representatives can change.
The U.S. Senate: The Senate is there to represent the best interests of each individual States themselves (Florida, Texas, New York, etc.), this is why there are only two Senators from each state. They are elected to six year terms, and broken up into classes (1, 2 and 3) with one class being up for reelection every two years. This means that, unlike the House, only 1/3rd of the Senate is up for reelection at any one time.
Now that Jane’s Bill has passed the House, it comes to the Senate, where it starts the process all over again. It gets assigned to a committee, and there are more hearings. This means, yep, you guessed it, more special interest groups and lobbyists. The process is the same, lots of horse trading and deal making.
Since the version of Jane's Bill that passed in the Senate is different from the one that passed in the House, the bill goes to a Conference Committee. A Conference Committee is made up of House and Senate members of the corresponding committees. This means that members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce will meet with members of the Senate Committee on Education and the Workforce, and work out a "final version" of the bill.
The Conference Committee will then send that final version (known as a Conference Report) back to both the House and the Senate for them to vote on and pass... again. Jane's Bill makes it through, and has now been debated, amended, and passed by the US Congress.
Time for the last step...
Step 6: We’re Off To See The Wiz…. President
Before Jane’s Bill becomes “Jane’s Law”, it has to take a trip down the street to The White House and see the President; in this case, it’s President Humbert Whoever. President Whoever doesn't like the bill however. He thinks it's a terrible idea and he veto's the bill.
It's all part of the checks-and-balances built in to our Constitution. Suffice it to say that the President can tell Congress that he doesn't agree with the Bill, and he sends it back to them. In this event there are three things that Congress can do:
- Let the Bill die.
- Tell the President to piss off, and attempt to override his veto (they need a 2/3rd majority in both the House and Senate to do that)
- Pull some shenanigans...
I'd like to think that, at this point in the article, you know what's coming...
Now that the Bill is back in Congress, and Jane is disappointed. Poor Jane. Perhaps that will teach you to mind your own business next time and not get involved in other peoples... oh- wait a sec... I'm on Jane's side.
Congress decides that they want to override the President's Veto, but they know they don't have the votes. So, the bill gets attached as a rider to the Defense Appropriations Bill. A rider is an amendment that is attached to another Bill that has little or nothing to do with the Bill itself. In this case, an amendment requiring school uniforms on a Bill that funds the Defense Department.
Since they know the President wouldn't veto the Defense Appropriations Bill, they get to pass their law, and stick it to the White House, all at once.
YAY!! Jane's Bill is now law, and children all over the Country will be suiting up in snappy new uniforms this year. Jane however may not make it back to school, since after spending so much time in Washington, watching the Government in action, Jane has felt the uncontrollable urge to keep showering over and over... yet she never feels clean.