Why A Few Bills Become Law & Most Don't

Many small arrows pointing right to create one large arrow pointing left.
Photo by 愚木混株 cdd20 / Unsplash

"Teamwork makes the dream work!" is not a common refrain in the halls of Congress.

Capitol Hill is 535 small businesses (100 Senators and 435 Congresspeople) that each have - with few exceptions - one main political motivation: reelection.

The reason meaningful gun control is so hard to move? It jeopardizes enough members' reelection. Or they believe it does.

The reason emissions are so hard to reign in? Reelection.

The reason the federal government subsidizes corn and soybeans? Reelection.

The reason Senators continue to commemorate Seersucker Thursday? That, actually, remains something of a mystery.

So into this jungle walks a little old bill. If it doesn't help the majority of members with their reelection, why should they stick their neck out on it? And if the bill is going to hurt their reelection chances, well it's just toast.

"Members" is a catch-all term for Members of the House or Senate. But note: Members of Congress only refers to House Members. Senators are absolutely Members of Congress but are only known as Senators. And that's the upper chamber for you.

Let's talk about all the ways a bill is laid to waste in the legislative process.

First, a bill is introduced: the easiest part of the legislative process.

Second, it is referred to the Committee of jurisdiction. Committees are broken down by issue area like Natural Resources (their tagline in the Republican House is "Putting conservatives back into conservation"), Armed Services, and Ethics.

The House Ethics Committee comes together regularly to reflect on how we as humans can live more ethically together...If only. The Committee oversees the conduct of Members and staff on things like what kind of gifts are acceptable, what kind of professional travel is permissible, and how much you can lie and still be a Member of Congress.

For a page-turner, I give you the full list of Congressional Committees. The House and Senate have similar, but not identical Committees. Naturally.

Third, the Committee needs to act on the bill. This could include a subcommittee hearing, full Committee hearing, markup, or something else entirely. This right here is where the vast majority of bills die off. Let us discuss.

If the bill is introduced by a member of the minority, its chances of getting out of Committee are Slim Jim. Committee Chairs have enough of their own party's bills to act on. Why should the majority give the minority an assist by moving their bill?

A few powers of the majority: Majority members are Committee Chairs, get the most seats on a Committee (House Agriculture Committee has 54 members: 29 are Republicans, 25 are Democrats), and have the most staff on those Committees.

It's not unheard of that the majority would move a minority bill, especially a non-controversial one. But these partisan days, it's the exception not the rule.

Now what about a bill introduced by a member of the majority? Not a guaranteed smooth sail either. Given how many bills get referred to Committees - Senate Ag currently has 305 bills pending, House Ag has 590 - the bill's sponsor will need to hustle to get the Committee Chair to take action. Letters might be written. Favors might be traded. And even then, little might happen.

One big exception: party priority bills. Most bills that go anywhere - especially in the House - reflect priorities set by majority party leadership. In fact, party priority bills will take up the bulk of the legislative calendar. And since Congress isn't in D.C. every weekday, in fact not even close to every weekday, there are a very limited number of days for a Committee to act on a bill.

Let's say our bill is one of the few bills that does move out of Committee. Step Four is a floor vote, which is when the whole chamber (House or Senate) votes on a measure on the floor of the chamber. Who controls what comes to the floor for a vote?

Majority party leadership. Typically leadership only brings bills to the floor when they know they have the votes for it, though the current House majority has really defied that norm (see here and here). The primary vote counter from party leadership is the whip.

Whip is a fox-hunting term that refers to the person in a hunting group who is in charge of keeping the dogs in line during the chase. Lot to read into there.

If leadership doesn't think a bill has the votes, doesn't like the bill, doesn't like the bill's sponsor, or doesn't want to make their members take a tough vote on the bill, it won't come to the floor.

There is a word for this. Now what is it? Let me think here. Ah! Yes.


But let's say our bill does get a vote on the floor and does get the majority of members to vote for it. VICTORY IS OURS!

Well. Not yet.

Step Five: The bill has to walk the same plank over in the other chamber. Plenty of bills die right here.

But if it's lucky enough to pass all the way through the same rigmarole in the other chamber, then Step Six is the President signs it into law. To date, President Biden has vetoed eight bills.

So if there's a Congressional bill you really care about, a great first question is: "Where in the absolute quagmire of the legislative process is it?"

Pop over to Congress.gov to find your answer.

Is it wasting away in Committee? Call the sponsor's office and ask how you can help. If your legislator is a cosponsor, maybe call their office, too.

If the bill has passed one chamber and not the other, see if there's a companion bill (an identical or near-identical bill) in the other chamber.

We'll go deeper on all of this in future posts. But the more we understand about how policy is made, the more we can help make better policy.

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