How to Call a Politician's Bluff

Playing cards with the Joker flipped face up.
Photo by Ryan Moulton / Unsplash

A great many politicians are in the business of introducing bills. A much smaller number of politicians are in the business of passing them.

Last Congress, 17,817 bills were introduced.

Congress has two-year sessions that start the January after an election. Each session is called - and they brought in the finest wordsmith for this - a Congress. Last Congress (2021-2023) was the 117th. We're currently in the 118th ('23-'25).

Of those 17,817 bills, only 365 passed, which amounts to 2%.

You'll often hear politicians say something to the tune of, "A horrible, rotten thing is happening, but you can sleep easy tonight because I have introduced a bill to fix this mess!"

Super fantastic! But the question is: What's the strategy to get the bill passed?

Introducing a bill in Congress is a piece of cake. Members in both the House and Senate walk onto the floor of their respective chambers during session and drop the bill in a tasteful mahogany box (House) or hand it to the bill clerk (Senate). There is zero limit on the number of bills legislators can introduce.

Over in the states, 21 legislatures cap the number of bills that can be introduced (mine isn't one of them, maybe yours is). But still for many state legislators, introducing a bill is a walk in the park. Getting that bill passed is a walk up K2.

We'll go miles deep on how a bill becomes a law another day. But for now, a two-sentence synopsis of the gauntlet that is the legislative process.

A bill gets referred to the Committee of jurisdiction, has to pass out of that Committee, get a vote on the floor, and then go through the same process in the other chamber. After that, either the President (for Congressional bills) or the governor (for state legislature bills) has to sign it into law.

Congress and all but one state legislature have two chambers (bicameral, to be fancy). A smaller upper chamber, the Senate, and a larger lower chamber, the House of Representatives/Delegates or Assembly. (Find out about yours here!) What's the lone holdout? Our cornhusker friends in Nebraska are unicameral.

State legislatures typically pass more lesiglation than Congress, but nobody is putting up 100%. So a lot of bills are pure messaging bills. They have no chance of becoming law - and the legislator introducing it knows that. Messaging bills are largely political tools to:

  • Frame the conversation on an issue or make a political point: bills to give statehood to Washington, D.C. This issue used to go nowhere in Congress (as a former Washingtonian, I wince writing that). But it successfully framed the conversation long enough and built a broad enough base of support, that it passed the House for the first time last Congress...only to die in the Senate. But the legislative process is nothing if not incremental.

  • Fulfill a campaign promise: the umpteen attempts to repeal Obamacare.

  • Show how committed a party is/how lousy the other party is on a particular cause: House Republicans passed an anti-abortion bill this Congress that died a quick death in the Democratic Senate.

There are also a lot of bills-to-nowhere that are introduced to placate or gladden a particular interest group or constituency. These bills get introduced session after session with little if any game plan to get them past the Committee of jurisdiction.

If a bill doesn't become law in one Congress, it has to be reintroduced in the next Congress and start the legislative process all over again.

Both parties do messaging bills. And this isn't an inherently bad thing. It's a tool that can be used for good and not-so-good. For sure, some of these bills are nothing but grist for campaign speeches. But some messaging bills help socialize people to an idea and lay the foundation for future passage when the legislation finds its political moment.

So how can you tell if a legislator will put their back into a bill? For Congressional bills, here are some clues, some of which are likely true in a few state legislatures.

Bipartisan original cosponsors
Bit dry sounding, isn't it? But sometimes, the most powerful stuff comes in dull packages. Bipartisan indicates there's buy-in from one member of both parties, which could incentivize other members of both parties to be supportive or at least less obstructionist. Could is the operative word. There are no guarantees.

Being an original cosponsor means a legislator cosponsored the bill before it was introduced; it signals that this bill is a priority for them. The Assault Weapons Ban, for example, has 199 Democratic original cosponsors in the House, but no Republican. Comparatively, the Bipartisan Primary Care and Health Workforce Act has two bipartisan original cosponsors, Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Roger Marshall (R-KS). Numbers count in different ways.

Bipartisan original cosponsors on the Committee of jurisdiction!!
We need some !! to spice it up a bit because this one can pack a real punch. In Congress, and likely some state legislatures, Committees get oodles more bills than they can ever act on. So mountains beyond mountains of bills die in Committee. But Committee members have a bit of sway to get a bill moving, especially Committee members in the majority party.

With the Sanders-Marshall primary care bill, Sen. Sanders chairs the Committee of jurisdiction (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions or HELP) and Sen. Marshall is Ranking Member of the HELP Subcommittee of jurisdiction. That bill could be going places, baby!

You can find what Committee a bill is in by popping over to You can find a Members' Committee assignments on their bio pages. State legislatures will take a bit more nosing around on the legislature's website.

Bipartisan Original Cosponsors ON the Committee of Jurisdiction WITH a Companion Bill in the Other Chamber
The always and forever answer to Clue, the Congress Edition. But it's really very super for a bill to have champions in both chambers so that when the bill passes one chamber, the champion in the other can shepherd it along. Or in a rare display of Congressional choreography, the bills move contemporaneously through the process in both chambers. These identical or near-identical bills in both chambers are called companion bills.

Companion bills alone don't guarantee passage. The Assault Weapons Ban has had House and Senate bills for years without passing. But if you have a House and Senate bill, with bipartisan cosponsors who are on the Committee of jurisdiction, then you could really be cooking with gas.

You sure can't do anything on an issue without a bill. So if a bill you love's been introduced and you're wondering if there's a future for it, check to see whether it's more style or substance.

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