Constitution Lecture 10: How Bills Become Laws
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Constitution Lecture 10: How Bills Become Laws

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, 100-0. 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 returns. 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.


  • Alan Escreet

    Why is it that simplicity seems to be antithetical to large organizations?
    This is just an assertion, but I believe it's because the decision makers WANT to be able to do things without anyone else understanding what they are doing.
    Good luck getting rid of rider clauses! Clear and transparent government would be a boon to all.

  • Shane Killian

    @58robbo Yeah, it's like there's a quadratic function there somewhere: partisan bills are bad, but bipartisan bills are not twice as bad, but four times as bad or more!

  • Shane Killian

    @rebelq1 I have several more parts planned, so I wouldn't say "forgetting." But you're free to bring up anything you think I've missed so far.

  • Shane Killian

    @rebelq1 A text itself is neither worthless nor worth a lot. What makes any text–including our constitution–be worthwhile is how well the people keep to it. The reason why we still (for the most part) have free speech in this country is not because of ink on parchment; it's because people have been willing to step forward and defend the concept.

  • Shane Killian

    @Homer177 Yes, and there already is such a law: it's called the Constitution. Nothing in the Constitution authorizes the Federal government to subsidize businesses.

  • managarm1349

    thats why the government should "help" its people. a few %, if that, get to the people in need of help and the rest lands in some fatass fucktards pocket. the 100% of the money however is very much TAKEN from all tax payers. yay

  • Hugo

    I don't think it would do any to create a law to force congress to read the laws as they would repeal it later. I think we should amend the constitution, but primarily we should start voting on people who actually care about politics and what we, the people, need instead of choosing them based on their political party.

  • 556deltawolf

    I'm pretty sure you know this already but there is a term to describe the Red River Flood bill you showed. They are called Earmarks where a politicians (usually a senator) secretly gets a law to be passed which will grant him federal money to a certain project he wants to do.

  • Pri Smith

    I had to view this for a class and I am so glad I did!! i feel like I just came out of hibernation…posted it to FB and everything.

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