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I'm a bill. A what? A bill!

Feb 28, 2018

The words fly effortlessly across the headlines.

by Jonae Harrison, CPLC Policy Analyst

Filibuster. Government shutdowns. Budget reconciliations. We know that our system of governance is tied to their strings; yet, we fail to recognize how all of Congress’s action really fits into our everyday lives. With a nod to Schoolhouse Rock!, CPLC presents “I’m a Bill. A What? A Bill!” While there are many nuances, exceptions and peculiarities of the legislative process, this piece should give you a small glimpse behind the veil.

The United States Congress was created by Article I of the Constitution of the United States. It gives Congress the power to create laws for our country. Congress is split into two chambers – the House of Representatives (“the House”) and the Senate. The House is the larger chamber, and its size is based on the US population count. Our population count, of course, is determined by the Census. (That’s why it’s important for each of us to be counted in the 2020 Census—regardless of age, sex, race, or citizenship.) The number of US Representatives, also called Congressmen, in each state is determined by the number of people in that state. The Senate is the smaller Chamber, and each State has 2 Senators to represent it. Currently, there are 535 voting members of Congress – 435 in the House and 100 in the Senate. Congressional sessions typically span two years. 2018 is the second year of the 115th Congress.

You can check for your state’s Congressmen and Senators HERE.

Proposed laws are introduced as bills. Bills can be introduced in either chamber. Once a bill is introduced, it is reviewed in the subject-specific committee of that chamber. There are 20 standing committees in the House and 16 in the Senate. Committees are comprised of representative members of all political parties. Committee members usually already possess some level of expertise in the subject area of the committee (ie. Armed Services). If not, members serve extensive time on the committee, allowing them to gain more knowledge than their colleagues.

Committees are where public hearings and testimony are held. Moreover, other federal agencies like the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office offer expertise to committee members to assist them in making informed decisions. While in committee, bills are debated and amended until all committee members present their agreed version of the bill to the entire chamber. The chamber can accept or reject the revised bill. Assuming it is accepted by vote (simple majority in the House – 218 of 435 – or simple majority in the Senate – 51 of 100), it is passed “across the Hall” to the other chamber.

A bill can only become law if both chambers of Congress have agreed to the same version of a bill. Any differences in the two chambers’ versions are reconciled by a committee represented by both chambers. That agreed upon version is then sent back to both chambers to vote again for final approval.

Simple, right? But how do filibusters, budget reconciliations and presidential vetoes fit in? These snazzy maneuvers are what can hold up legislation. Filibusters are the Senate’s tactics to hold endless debate. Budget reconciliations are Congress’s way to otherwise expedite revenue bills that could be stalled with tricky tactics. Vetoes…well, if the President doesn’t like the bill, he can simply say no. That act has consequences all of its own.

Albeit simplified, you can put some of our recent Congressional headlines in context. Most importantly, familia, our members of Congress represent you. So stand up. Be counted. Your Congressional delegation needs to hear from you on the matters that affect you and your community. They have many paths to navigate. That’s their job. Yours is a right, and that is to be heard.

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