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Legislation

The Enactment Of A Bill

A bill must follow certain customary steps through a legislature. It is introduced by an elected member who acts as a sponsor. The chief sponsor, who might or might not be the author of the bill, is the legislator who manages the bill as it progresses through the body and who explains it to other legislators. The bill may also have cosponsors, who attach their names to the bill to add support.

When the bill is introduced, it is referred to a standing committee. Whenever possible the bill's sponsors and the legislative leadership attempt to steer the bill to a particular committee. In most legislatures there is room for discretion in the reference of bills. Major legislation might have to be referred to several committees, so the issue might be who receives it first.

Once the bill is referred, the committee must be convinced to place it on the agenda so that it can be considered and passed. The committee chair is in charge of the committee, and requests for a slot on the agenda of the committee must be directed to the chair and the chair's staff. An autocratic chair can decide which bills to consider without consulting committee members, but much of the work of a committee is done by consensus.

Competition for committee time is generally intense. Usually bills that are heard are essential, popular, or generally beneficial. Occasionally they are noncontroversial or not especially appealing to the chair. A bill can even be scheduled merely to impede another, unfavorable proposal. If a spot cannot be attained on the agenda, a sponsor can seek consideration by a subcommittee so that a rough proposal can be polished into a draft that will be more appealing to the full committee.

Legislative procedure is designed so that a bill is heard when a need for it is demonstrated. Unnecessary or poorly drafted bills are bottled up in committees where no one takes time to consider them. As a bill approaches passage, it becomes more difficult to amend it or kill it. Efforts made early in the history of the bill are generally more effective. For example, fewer members have to be persuaded when a bill is still being considered by a committee, and fewer compromises have to be made.

If a committee decides not to act on a bill and tables it, that bill is effectively stopped for that session of the legislature. If the committee recommends that the bill be indefinitely postponed, the bill is formally killed and that recommendation is reported to the floor as a committee report to be confirmed by house vote. Adoption of the committee report officially kills the bill. If the committee recommends that the bill be passed, the bill is submitted to the floor with a favorable report, which is essential to its passage. If the bill must go through more than one committee, the first committee must then refer it to the second, and the first favorable decision gives it some momentum toward success.

After a legislative body approves a favorable committee report, the bill is placed on the agenda for floor action, or action by the full body. The agenda can be lengthy. During its wait for floor action, the bill is subject to a motion to refer it again to the same committee or any other committee for reconsideration. Making a successful motion to refer it again is a classic method of defeating a bill without taking the difficult step of going on record against it on a final vote.

In most state legislatures, a bill is first considered on the floor in a committee of the whole, in which every member of the house sits as a committee to debate the bill. A committee of the whole is derived historically from the desire of early English parliaments to act in semisecrecy, without recorded votes that the queen or king could monitor. The idea has survived, and legislators continue to act without suffering the political consequences of an unpopular vote on the record.

Procedurally, the consideration of a bill by a committee of the whole allows debate without limits on the duration of time or number of times a member can speak. It also provides an interval between the first formal floor consideration and final passage of the bill, which permits more time for careful deliberation.

The use of the committee of the whole has, however, declined. More bills are submitted for deliberation by the legislative body and final vote while the subject is still fresh in the members' minds. A legislature can, therefore, eliminate use of the committee of the whole for some types of bills, for special circumstances, or altogether.

Almost every legislature has a consent calendar for bills identified by committee reports as noncontroversial. Each such bill is read at the appointed time and briefly explained, and a vote is taken. Even if only a few votes dissent, the bill is returned to the regular calendar for examination. The consent calendar permits a legislature to dispose of a host of minor bills expeditiously.

As a general practice, the legislative leadership uses a special order to schedule debate, amendment, and passage of a bill at a single session. A bill can be designated for special order by a vote of two-thirds, or more commonly by selection by a priority-setting or policy committee. Bills from appropriations and tax committees might receive automatic special order privileges because of the necessity for their enactment.

Some constitutions, including that of the United States, permit a vote on the final passage of a bill to be oral and unrecorded unless a member calls for the ayes and nays. Ordinarily, a member is entitled to do this on any motion, including final passage.

Immediately following a vote on final passage, a motion to reconsider can be made. In effect this motion requests another vote on the bill. Although the number of successful reconsiderations is small, the device can facilitate additional compromise to accommodate competing interests on the issue. Generally, only one reconsideration of any vote is allowed, so both sides endeavor to gather switch votes after a close vote. The victorious side attempts to conduct the vote on the reconsideration immediately, so that the losers do not have time to marshal strength. In the U.S. Congress, a motion to reconsider is made routinely after every vote, to give the vote a finality by precluding such a motion at a later time.

In a bicameral legislature, once a bill is passed in one house, the chances for success in the second house are good because the bill has become a product of compromise. There is no concern about wasting time on a bill that can never succeed, because the bill has already cleared the other house. Busy legislators prefer not to repeat debates that have already been extensive in the first house, and they respect the value of cooperation between the two houses.

A single bill must be passed by both houses of a bicameral legislature and be signed by the executive. If the houses pass identical but separate bills, one of the houses must approve the official bill from the other house. The presiding officer and the chief clerical official must verify passage of a bill by signing the official or enrolled copy before the bill is ready for the executive's signature. After the final affirmative vote for passage in the first house, the bill is put into an official engrossment, or formal final copy, and transmitted to the other house for consideration.

Since each house must pass the exact same bill, the form that is passed in the first house can be substituted for a parallel or companion bill in the second house. If the second house accepts the version that is adopted in the first house, it returns the bill with a message to that effect. The first house then enrolls, transcribes, and registers the bill on a roll of bills and submits it to the executive for signature.

If the second house amends the bill, it returns the bill to the first house with a message requesting agreement on the changes. If the amendments are acceptable, a motion is made to concur and to place the bill on repassage. If the motion passes, all the formalities of a final vote are repeated for the bill in its amended form. If repassed the bill is enrolled in its amended form, signed by the legislative officers, and submitted to the executive for signature.

When the two houses cannot agree on a final form for a bill, a complex procedure of compromise is attempted in a conference committee comprising usually three to five members from each house. If the conferees can reach agreement, a conference committee report is filed in both houses that reflects the final changes. Both houses must approve the report, without amendment, for the bill to be passed.

Once the bill is approved by both houses, it is put into final form and transmitted to the executive. If the executive signs the enrolled bill, it is filed with the SECRETARY OF STATE. The enrolled bill is then an act, a written law. Depending on the bill, the act may become effective upon signature of the executive or at some date specified in the bill.

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