The Legislative Process

Although not identical in size, structure and process, the United States Congress and each of the state legislatures are quite similar. It is important to understand the nuances of each state, particularly the legislative calendar and process as timing is a critical element when developing and implementing a letter writing and/or personal visits strategy.

Anyone may draft a bill; however, only elected members can introduce legislation, and by doing so become the sponsor(s). The official process begins when a bill or resolution is numbered - H.R. generally signifies a House bill and S. a Senate bill - and is referred to a committee and printed.

When a bill reaches a committee it can be referred to a subcommittee or considered by the committee as a whole. It is at this point that a bill is examined carefully and it's chances for passage are determined. If the committee does not act on a bill, it is the equivalent of killing it. If given consideration in the subcommittee or before the full committee, there will be hearings affording interested parties an opportunity to submit testimony in person or a written statement.

The full committee must vote on a bill to move into the House or Senate. If the bill is "reported out" it goes to the chamber where it originated and may be scheduled for floor action depending on the calendar and leadership's desires. If the bill goes to the floor of the House or Senate, there are rules and procedures governing debate on the specific bill. After debate, the bill is passed or defeated by members voting.

When a bill is passed by the House or Senate, it is referred to the other chamber where it usually follows the same route through committee and floor action. This chamber may approve the bill as received, reject it, ignore it, or change it. If only minor changes are made to the bill, it is common for the legislation to go directly to the President or Governor for signature. However, when the actions of the other chamber significantly alter the bill, a conference committee is formed to reconcile the differences between the two chambers' versions. If conferees are unable to reach agreement, the bill dies. If agreement is reached, a conference report is prepared and must be voted on by both chambers. Once an approved bill is sent to the chief executive, it can be signed and becomes law, no action taken, or vetoed. The specific options, time frames and procedures will vary from Congress to each state but are in general very similar.

Before and during the courses of the legislative process, there are many opportunities for constituents to make their feelings known to representatives as well as key staff. It is important to understand the formal and informal processes at work in each state. In addition, strong personal relationships with representatives and staff are invaluable in assuring that constituents' concerns are heard and understood.

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