How a Bill Really Becomes a Law

Yes.  I know you expect me to just refer you to the Schoolhouse Rock video that we’ve all seen many times because this short video perfectly summarizes our legislative process. A bill begins as an idea, is introduced into Congress by one of its members, goes through committees, must pass both houses, and is either signed or vetoed by the president.  Short and sweet. But wrong. Not even close.

The truth is that laws must pass through a much more complex series of very political processes, and as my Dad always said: “It ain’t pretty”.   Otto Van Bismarck’s 19th century proclamation that “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made” is more true today than ever before. Here is a short summary of problems with the American legislative process and with Congress. I leave out MUCH more than I cover and will likely return to the topic in future posts.


Most folks think legislators have ideas that they develop or which are brought to them by their constituents and that they then work to turn this idea in to a bill. There may have been a time when this was the norm, but it is certainly not today. On the state level where most legislators serve only part time positions and don’t have full time staff, they rely heavily on interest groups and lobbyists. Ideas for utility laws might originate with utility companies, laws affecting grocery stores might originate with the lobbyists for those stores, etc. Or, in many states an idea might originate with ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council), a group funded by corporations and widely criticized for its undue influence on state governments. This should really concern you.

Sure, it happens that legislators have ideas they personally support which they try to turn in to law, but these days that is often the exception. Remember that organized interest groups have full time lobbyists in Washington and in every state capitol; you and I do not. Last year there were more than 11,000 lobbyists in Washington alone, and they spent over $3 billion to influence government. The same is true on the state level as well. In Illinois, for example, there are 1,609 registered lobby groups.

Bills also originate with the agencies responsible for a policy area, so EPA might compose environmental legislation, The Department of Agriculture might write ag bills, the Uniform Law Commission might write bills attempting to help states find common ground on an issue, etc. A large portion of bills also come from the White House.

In recent years we’ve seen an alarming trend (mentioned later) where the leaders of the two houses write legislation themselves and present it to their houses.


Each year more than 10,000 bills are formally filed in Congress, so there must be a way to efficiently deal with them. Most bills are sent to a committee, and most die there. The idea is to send bills to committees with content expertise, so military bills go to the military committees, agriculture bills to agriculture committees, etc. This is a good idea that evolved as government grew larger and issues became more complex. By now you probably can assume that there are problems with the committee system (or I would not be mentioning it), and you would be correct.

A committee composed of a relatively smaller number of members of Congress conducts research and hopefully offers an objective recommendation to the House or Senate. Great idea except that the members of committees are the primary target of interest groups that want to influence their decisions. These interest groups donate large sums of campaign money to the members of the committee because they know the committees’ decisions are almost always final. The lobbyists for interest groups focus much of their efforts on the committee members, wining and dining them in other ways as well.

The committee system also suffers from other problems, but the discussion would put you to sleep (my greatest fear!). I’ll just say that the committee system has also been weakened in recent years by congressional leadership’s decisions.


Well…many members of Congress leave DC on Thursday afternoon and return on Tuesday morning. On average Congress engages in legislative work less than three days each week, or 139 days per year. Not bad for folks earning a salary of $174,000 per year. I’d calculate their hourly wage but it would just depress me.

Why do they work so few hours when they have more than 10,000 bills to consider each year? They return home to engage in “constituency service”, meaning they theoretically work with their voters regarding problems with government. They also hold (or should hold) “town hall” meetings where they engage with their voters. And they spend some of that time raising campaign money. According to a 2013 study, members of Congress spend between 15-20% of their time raising campaign money. In case you are interested, for the 2012 election cycle members of the House raised on average $2,400 per day and senators raised $4,700 per day for the six-year period. Oh…and they are also required to raise money for their parties.

So, our representatives and senators don’t really spend much time on the legislative process itself.


Well. Yeah. Quite a bit, but I’ll be brief. The legislative process is now mired in party division with no end in sight. There really were times in our past when Democrats and Republicans in Congress worked to compromise on issues, but rank partisanship has steadily increased during the last four decades to the point that compromise is considered a four letter word. The reasons for this split are numerous, and none are pleasant. At least part of the problem is voters who either stay at home on election day or have no clue why they are voting for someone, and by now you can assume that money also plays a part as well.

At the heart of the problem is Congress’ rejection of regular order as a way of doing business (which, by the way, would be much more similar to the Schoolhouse Rock version). Under regular order bills are introduced by members of Congress,  referred to the relevant committees, and then go to the floor for debate if approved by the committee. Further, the process is TRANSPARENT. Today bills often come to the floor of the House and Senate for debate, and the members do not even have time to read them in advance. The text of the bills is often not made available to the public in advance, committees are bypassed, and the bills are sometimes written by House or Senate leaders and then presented to the members for votes with little or no debate (the current healthcare proposal is a good example).

My students know that I consider the U.S. Congress to be THE major problem with American government. People blame presidents because they are visible (and its easier to focus on one person than 535), but I believe most blame can be placed squarely on Congress. Congress could solve many issues facing our nation if it would just do its job. My students also know my only joke (and it is a weak one) regarding Congress: If pro is the opposite of con, what is the opposite of progress?