The Capitol Hill Experience: How a Bill Really Becomes a Law

The Capitol Hill Experience
How a Bill Really
Becomes Law
Dirksen Congressional Center
Congress in the Classroom
Peoria, IL, July 31, 2006
Artemus Ward
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science
Northern Illinois University
Knowledge is Power
Because the average
life expectancy of a
Hill staffer is three
years, more
permanent players
are the policy experts
that staff must turn to
when policy matters
arise: CRS, Leg
Counsel, Lobbyists.
Congressional Research Service
Professional, nonpartisan research staff
for members of
Congress and their
Policy experts draft
reports on policy issues
and routinely update the
Easily available by
phone if staffer/member
has questions on an
Legislative Counsel
Nonpartisan bill-drafting service for members
and committees started in 1919.
Run by the “Legislative Counsel of the House”
who is appointed by the Speaker.
Staffed by 35 attorneys and 15 support staff.
One or two attorneys are experts on particular
policy areas.
All legislation, including proposed amendments
must “go through” leg counsel before they are
It is routine for an attorney in the Office who has
drafted a bill for a committee to then draft floor
amendments for individual Members on all sides
of issues raised by the bill.
Interest Groups
Interest groups/lobbying firms are composed
of former Hill staffers and members.
They have the time and resources to do the
work (research, drafting bills, organizing
meetings and public hearings) that staffers
and members simply cannot do.
They routinely attend strategy meetings with
staffers and members – as if they were on
the staff! Indeed, because of their resources
they often are the key players at these
How a Bill is Introduced
Any member can
put a bill into the
hopper by walking
on the House and
dropping it in.
The member can
then say, “I
legislation to . . .”
Committee and
hearings are generally
shows to generate
press coverage.
Celebrity witnesses
and “victims” are key.
Should the majority
party fail to schedule
hearings on an issue,
the minority can stage
a “hearing-like” event.
After hearings, the bill
is “marked up” by the
full committee.
The bill is debated.
Amendments are
A final disposition of
and vote on the bill is
Committee Reports
The Committee Report describes the purpose and
scope of the bill and the reasons for its
recommended approval. Generally, a section-bysection analysis is set forth explaining precisely
what each section is intended to accomplish.
Committee reports are perhaps the most valuable
single element of the legislative history of a law.
They are used by courts, executive departments,
and the public as a source of information regarding
the purpose and meaning of the law.
The minority party files a “minority views” report.
They have two days to complete it after the final
committee vote.
The Rules Committee Rules
13 members: 9 majority party, 4 minority.
Before each bill is considered on the House floor, a rule is adopted
that stipulates how it is to be considered.
Open Rule – Historically, most bills had an "open rule'', that is, a rule
under which anyone could offer an amendment to the bill.
Modified Open Rule - More recently the norm is either a rule making in
order a short list of amendments submitted in advance to the Rules
Committee, or a rule prescribing a limited time within which
consideration of the bill, and all amendments thereto, must be
The Rules Committee is the only committee that is exempt from
having to make a public announcement of the date, place, and subject
matter of all hearings at least one week before the commencement of
that hearing.
The disparity in majority-minority members, so-called "modified open
rules,'‘ and the ability to meet on a moment’s notice are generally used
by the majority party to cut off debate. The result is that bills are rarely
debated or modified on the House floor.
“Debate” and “Vote” on House Floor
Each side gets a set
amount of time to speak
on the bill before the
That time is apportioned
among members who
want to say something.
During the vote, staffers
and members lobby their
colleagues on the floor
with handouts and
Knowledge is power.
In the House, the majority has complete power
and the minority has limited resources: public
hearings, minority views (report), the press, etc.
The people who know the most (read all the
newspapers, bills, reports, etc.) have the most
Interest groups work closely with members and
their staffs.
The U.S. Congress operates very much like
High School student government: slapdash,
rushed, petty . . .