Constitution Lecture 10: How Bills Become Laws

Uploaded by shanedk on 02.01.2011

One of the aspects of our Constitutional form of government that is taught the most is the
process for a bill becoming a law. You probably remember being taught this in school; you
probably even remember the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon about it. But while what you learned
is technically correct, it doesn't go far enough in showing what exactly goes on in
Congress during the process.
The process is detailed in Article I Section 7. I won't quote the whole section here, but
to summarize, a bill originates in one house or the other. If it's a revenue bill, it must
originate in the House of Representatives and not the Senate. After it passes both the
House and the Senate, it goes to the President. The President can sign it, veto it, or do
nothing. If he signs it, it becomes law. If he vetos it, he returns it with his written
objections to the house where it originated. At this point, the only way the unaltered
bill can get past the President's veto is by a two-thirds majority in both houses.
If the President does nothing, then it all depends on what happens in the next ten days.
If Congress is still in session (and if they themselves have not prevented the President
returning the bill), the bill passes without the President's signature. If Congress adjourns
within ten days, tbe bill is killed. This is known as a "pocket veto."
If you look at what actually happens, though, it's not so simple. Generally, after a bill
is introduced, it is relegated to some committee or other. The committee can then work on the
bill and get it in a form acceptable for debate, after investigating whatever issues the bill
brings up or fixing the major problems with it. But the committee can also be used to
kill an inconvenient bill: the bill is sent to committee, and the committee just never
gets around to working on it. Many bills are quietly killed this way.
Also, it's not as straightforward as both houses voting for it. The fact that a bill
can be amended before the vote throws a wrench into the works. Say a bill originates in the
House (which, again, it must if it is a revenue bill). The House passes it, and it goes to
the Senate. The Senate, like the House before it, will likely introduce amendments changing
or adding to the bill. Since the bill the Senate passes will be different from the one
the House has passed, the bill then goes to a joint committee to iron out the differences,
after which it goes back to the House and the Senate for the final vote. These amendments
can be more significant than you think. It's actually very important for getting the bill
passed in Congress in its current form.
Senator Foghorn needs the support of Senator Leghorn in order to get his new bill passed.
Is he going to speak rationally to Senator Leghorn, explaining in logical terms why the
bill should be passed? No! He’s going to ask him what kind of rider he could put on
the bill to encourage Senator Leghorn to vote for it.
See, the Constitution placed no restriction on bills saying that they should be restricted
to only one subject. So Congressmen and Senators usually take every opportunity to see that
their pet projects and pork-barrel boondoggles get attached to bills that have a greater
chance of passing, like disaster relief bills. This usually takes the form of “pork,”
money appropriated to Senator Leghorn’s state, some big corporation therein, or some
big campaign donor. What results can cross the line into ridiculous and border the atrocious.
In 1997, the Red River flooded parts of North Dakota and Minnesota. It wasn’t too long
before Congress started falling all over themselves to pass HR1469, the Emergency Supplemental
Appropriations bill, also known as the Flood Relief bill, to give money to help the poor
victims recover from this natural disaster. Included in the bill that passed both House
and Senate were such riders as:
An order for the President to report on the costs and funds of overseas peacekeeping efforts
in Bosnia (a good 5,000 miles from either North Dakota or Minnesota);
Collection and dissemination of information on prices received for bulk cheese (Isn't
the cheese state Wisconsin and not Minnesota?);
$3,600,000 for Utah to be used for projects critical to the 2002 Winter Olympics (When
Utah wasn't flooded at all);
A provision allowing for the taking of marine mammals if it is necessary to avoid injury
or death or provide for its safe release (Finally! Something relevant to the coastal states of
Minnesota and North Dakota. Oh, wait a minute...);
A provision allowing the Rural Housing Service to make loans and grants available to the
College Station area of Pulaski County...Arkansas??? (Wait, wasn't that where President Clinton
was from? Interesting coincidence...);
Whatever money may be required to repair or replace concession facilities at Yosemite
National Park (And I thought Yosemite National Park was in California, not North Dakota or
Minnesota. Learn something new every day...);
(My personal favorite:) A provision to order the Secretary of the Interior to issue a permit
for the imporation of polar bear parts from Canada;
$133,600 to the children of Frank Tejeda, late Representative from the State of...Texas;
And so on and so on and on and on and on. There was a rider to prevent the Census Bureau
from using statistical sampling. Another rider prevented the studying of the medical benefits
of marijuana. Yet another amendment took $2 million AWAY from FEMA's disaster relief fund.
You get the idea. Of the tens of billions of dollars this bill allocated, only $500
million was appropriated for flood victims in North Dakota and Minnesota, and even then
there were so many restrictions that none of the money actually got to where it could
do any good. And an earlier version of the bill had neglected to appropriate any money
to the flood relief effort at all!
And this was in a Congress that was at least pretending to care about balancing the budget!
No one even knows exactly how much spending this bill appropriated. We know it's in the
tens of billions, but Congress doesn't make line-items with a total at the bottom. Often,
the appropriation is "whatever funds are necessary" or some non-specific language like that.
Now, you may accuse me of choosing an extreme example, but it's NOT an atypical example.
This kind of thing happens all the time, with bills growing to hundreds and hundreds of
pages, full of one rider after another, and the final bill passes without anyone in Congress
actually reading it.
In fact, many times a bill will be debated merely on its title, such as the "No Child
Left Behind Act" or the "Patriot Act." Anyone who votes against the bill is therefore chastised
by others in Congress and in the media as being against children, or against disaster
relief, or not being a patriot, or whatever the title of the bill says.
Often it gets quite disturbing. For example, in 2005 the House passed the REAL ID Act,
which centralizes identification procedures throughout the states, essentially setting
up a National ID Card. After it passed the House, the public outcry against it was so
great that the Senate rejected it. But then, the bill's author attached it as a rider to
the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror,
and Tsunami Relief, 2005. The Senate passed the bill--with the REAL ID rider included--unanimously,
This happens quite a bit. Congressmen who wanted to stop online gambling couldn't get
enough support to get a bill passed, so they attached it to a bill on Port Security. A
2004 Appropriations Bill had riders attached to exempt up to 900 grazing allotments on
national forest land from environmental review, to limit legal challenges to timber sales
in Tongass National Forest, and to allow some committee members to view other people's tax
In short, Congress gives bills lofty-sounding (but mostly undeserved) titles, puts in a
lot of unrelated riders (some of them quite sinister), and passes the bill without anyone
in Congress even reading it. If this angers you--and it should--then you need to write
your Senators and Representative to tell them to pass laws forcing Congress to read the
bills it passes, and to make the bills based on one and only one subject, specifically
spelled out in the title.
Until next time, stay strong and be free.