POSITIVELY AWARE NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2010
A political primer for slackers
By Sue Saltmarsh
It has been brought to my attention that it’s confusing when I report on pending legislation in Congress, that people don’t understand what it means or if it’s actually law. Obviously, not every high school kid who sits through Civics class pays enough attention to become a fully-informed, politically aware citizen—hell, I didn’t have a shred of political interest until I was in my 40s. So for those who have gaps in their knowledge base about how our government works, here are some pointers.
He can’t do it alone.
First, no president, Democrat or Republican, can write, pass, and enact a law by himself. Yes, there are such things as Executive Orders, but they aren’t for things like national health care or same-sex marriage, and they are ridiculously easy to rescind by the one who issued them or overturn when the next guy gets into office and doesn’t like them. They are not law.
One would think a president who has a Congress with a majority in his own party would have pretty free reign – George W. certainly did. Unfortunately, as the 111th Congress (the current one) has proven, that is not always true. Therefore, Obama himself has not been able to wipe out DADT (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) or DOMA (Defense of Marriage ACT) and he simply can’t give HIV/AIDS advocates all the money they want, no matter how much he’d like to. Congress holds the votes and the purse strings and when fellow Democrats defect and no Republicans join the team, there is no getting anything he wants, the way he wants it, passed into law, hence the loss of the public option and the settling for watered-down health care reform. And the worse news is, after the recent election, the 112th Congress that convenes in January will be even more dedicated to ignoring what’s best for the people they represent and focusing on slapping the president down at every turn.
The passing lane
So what is the process a law goes through to become a law?
First, a senator or representative introduces a bill, thus becoming its sponsor, in the chamber of Congress to which he or she belongs (Senate or House of Representatives). Others who support the bill may become co-sponsors. At this point, it is assigned a number, for example S.3401 (Senate bill 3401) or H.R.676 (House bill 676). It is also usually, but not always, given a name by its sponsor(s)—S.3401 is the ACCESS ADAP Act and H.R.676 is the United States National Health Insurance Act (or the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act). Political insiders (well, at least the ones on “The West Wing”) contend that it can be quite a process to come up with a name—many times, they are cheesy, melodramatic, too earnest, deceptive, or just plain dumb. In any case, the legislator introduces it and it is then referred to a committee.
It is here that the bill is considered in detail by committee members and political muscles are flexed, especially by members who have seniority or a great amount of influence. Committees can either approve a bill or fail to pass it into the next stage of the process. Bills that fail are said to have “died in committee.”
Before a bill is approved by the committee, sometimes it is sent to a subcommittee for further study and hearings, at which just about anyone can testify and all hearings are open to the public unless a decision is made that a public hearing would endanger national security.
If the subcommittee decides to report (recommend) a bill back to the full committee for its approval, they first make any amendments or changes to it. This is called “Mark Up.” If the bill is voted down, it dies in the subcommittee.
A bill that’s reported back to the full committee undergoes review of the recommendations of the subcommittee. It can go through further review or more public hearings or the committee can simply vote on the report from the subcommittee. If the bill is to go forward, the committee makes and votes on its final recommendations to the House or Senate. When a bill passes this stage, it’s said to be “reported.”
At this point, a report about the bill is written and published for the reading pleasure of the legislators. The report includes the purpose of the bill, its impact on current laws, budgetary considerations, and any tax implications the bill may have. Transcripts from any public hearings are included, as are the opinions of the committee.
The bill will now be placed on the legislative calendar(s) of the House or the Senate to be scheduled for “floor action,” or debate, before the full chamber. At present (2010), in the House, which has several legislative calendars, the Speaker and the Majority Leader decide the order in which bills will be debated. In the Senate, which only has one calendar, the Majority Leader decides.
Arguments for and against the bill are heard before the full House or Senate and amendments proposed—this is when majority and minority leaders and whips work their magic within their caucuses (the members of their own party).
Once debate is ended and amendments are approved, the full membership will vote for or against the bill. Bills that are approved or passed by one chamber (House or Senate) are then sent to the other chamber, where they’ll go through the whole process of committee to subcommittee to debate to vote again. Any doubt about why our government moves so slowly?
The second chamber may approve, reject, ignore, or amend the bill. If there are significant changes made by the second chamber, the bill goes to conference committee, a group made up of both House and Senate members. The conference committee works to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. If the committee can’t resolve those differences, the bill dies. If they do agree on a compromise, a report is written detailing the changes they agree on. Both the House and the Senate must approve the report or the bill will be sent back to conference committee for further work.
Law or veto
Once both chambers have approved the bill in identical form, it becomes “enrolled” and sent to the President to either sign into law or veto. If he takes no action on the bill for 10 days while Congress is still in session, the bill automatically becomes law. If he takes no action for 10 days after Congress has adjourned their second session, the bill dies—this is called a “pocket veto.”
Congress can attempt to override a presidential veto and force a bill into law, but to do that, a 2/3 vote is required by a quorum (the minimum number of members in order to conduct business) in both the House and the Senate.
You’ve all heard “Contact your elected officials and tell them…” in relation to many causes and pending legislation, especially funding bills. When a bill in its infancy is reported in the PA E-News or in PA itself, you may wonder what the big deal is. As you can see above, there are many stages in the life of a bill that may become law. Like a baby taking its first steps, bills need a hand to support them or to catch them when they fall. That’s where we come in.
If our senators and representatives know we’re paying enough attention out here to call or write when a bill first goes into committee, they are more likely to pay attention themselves, especially if they’re on that committee. If they hear from us when a bill gets placed on the calendar, they’ll know we’re watching to see what happens in floor debate. Cynics may contend that it’s pointless to spend any effort on a bill that’s only going to die in committee, but my answer is that only our voices can save its life.
How will you know what’s happening with a certain bill? You can pay attention to e-news updates and online exclusives at www.positivelyaware.com, for one thing—I promise to do my best to keep you informed of the latest movement of bills through Congress.
If you have computer access, you can track actions on specific bills in the House and the Senate. Go to www.thomas.loc.gov. You can even sign up for e-mail delivery of the Congressional Digest from the Library of Congress which allows you to read exactly what went on in each chamber each day. It can be scary, sometimes infuriating, but also fascinating.
To find contact information for your Senators and Representatives, go to www.senate.gov or www.house.gov.
If you don’t know the names of your elected officials, go to www.congress.org.
And always, always vote!
The latest on S.3401
In case you’re interested in knowing where the ACCESS ADAP Act is in the process, as of November 10, it was still in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). Members of that committee are as follows.
Democrats: Chairman Tom Harkin (IA), Christopher Dodd (CT), Barbara Mikulski (MD), Jeff Bingaman (NM), Patty Murray (WA), Jack Reed (RI), Robert Casey, Jr. (PA), Kay Hagan (NC), Jeff Merkley (OR), Al Franken (MN), Michael Bennet (CO), Carte Goodwin (WV)
Republicans: Michael Enzi (WY), Judd Gregg (NH), Lamar Alexander (TN), Richard Burr (NC), Johnny Isakson (GA), John McCain (AZ), Orrin Hatch (UT), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Tom Coburn, M.D. (OK), Pat Roberts (KS)
Bernard Sanders (VT) is the only Independent on the committee.
In July, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) was added as a co-sponsor and in August, Olympia Snowe (R-MN) signed on, joining Senators Burr, Coburn, Enzi, and LeMieux. Democrats have still not come out to support it.
If you have a senator on the HELP Committee, let him or her know that you’re paying attention and that you need them to support S.3401 so that the now over 4,000 people on waiting lists don’t have to wait any longer. I’m going to make sure each of them gets a copy of the September/October issue.