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ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL


September/October 2013

How a bill really becomes a law
By Ben Schwarm

Ben Schwarm is IASB deputy executive director and heads the governmental relations team for the Association. His article originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of the Illinois Association of School Business Officials’ Update Magazine.

“I’m just a bill
Yes I’m only a bill.
And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.
Well, it’s a long, long journey
To the capital city,
It’s a long, long wait
While I’m sitting in committee,
But I know I’ll be a law someday
At least I hope and pray that I will,
But today I am still just a bill.”*

For the most part, the legendary (at least for folks my age) “I’m Just a Bill” skit from Schoolhouse Rock in the 1970s is pretty accurate here in Illinois. A bill must make it through two legislative chambers and be signed into law by the chief executive whether in Congress in Washington, D.C., or in the Illinois General Assembly in Springfield.

But, oh, the shenanigans that can happen on the way. That School House Rock bill never came to Springfield to get mugged by a rules committee, stuffed into a “shell bill,” and tacked onto a provision in a 1,000-page “BIMP” bill that was voted on virtually sight unseen.

What textbooks will tell you

Section eight under Article IV of the Constitution of the State of Illinois succinctly expresses what must happen for the passage of bills in our state. A bill may originate in either the Senate or the House of Representatives, must be “read by title on three different days” in each chamber, and must have approval of a majority of the members elected in each chamber before being sent to the governor for his consideration. Sounds simple enough.

Beyond the constitution, there are a few other hurdles for legislation to navigate. Both the Illinois House of Representatives and the Illinois Senate have their own “General Assembly Rules” that they adopt and that must, generally be followed. This includes the use of committees and certain timelines that must be met.

The exception, of course, is when the legislators decide that they don’t want to follow their rules, which is always an option too. But I digress and will explore that a little later.

For the vast majority of bills that are introduced, the usual course is followed. A bill in a spring legislative session in Springfield will be:

• Introduced in either the House or Senate

• Read into the record on three separate days

• Considered by a committee

• Sent to the chamber floor

If approved, it is sent to the opposite chamber to repeat the same drill there. The process without any expeditious treatment will take about three months.

But who wants to hear about that boring process?

Where does a bill really come from?

Sometimes the idea for a piece of legislation actually comes from the legislator who introduces it. Mostly, though, the idea has come from a constituent who has had a problem navigating the state’s bureaucracy, from an interest group or lobbyist, or from some other think tank or organization that the legislator belongs to.

My favorite is when a legislator says (this is much more common to hear from a congressman in D.C.) that “I wrote the bill that … .”In my 27 years working in and around the Capitol, I’ve never known a legislator who actually “wrote the bill.”

Legislators certainly make legislation happen, but it is staff, lawyers and lobbyists who usually do the actual writing. And in Springfield, truly only the lawyers at the Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) write the official bill that is considered in the Capitol.

Legislative committees and rules, and how to get around them

The General Assembly Rules in both the House and Senate versions allow for the use of committees. Standing committees are named in each chamber generally by subject matter. So, for instance, a bill that proposes to change the provision in the School Code regarding high school graduation requirements would likely be sent to the education committee in the Senate or the elementary and secondary education committee in the House.

When a bill is drafted and introduced, it will be “read into the record” in the chamber of origin. In the Senate, for example, there will be a day when the secretary of the Senate (an appointed position selected by the Senate president) actually stands at the podium (the “well” as it is called by insiders) and reads the title of hundreds of newly introduced bills into a microphone before a usually totally empty chamber: “SB 230, a bill regarding education; SB 231, a bill regarding transportation” and so on. The clerk of the House does the same thing in that chamber.

After the initial reading, the bill is sent to the committee on assignment in the Senate — in the House, they call it the rules committee. This committee decides which substantive committee to send a bill. Sometimes a bill is never assigned to a “real committee” and languishes forever in “Rules” or “COA.” This is the first ironclad gatekeeping device for the majority party.

The General Assembly Rules also require that a new bill be “posted” for a committee hearing at least six days before the bill will actually be considered by the committee. This is an attempt at transparency and for the public to become aware of legislation before the first vote is taken. And, really, this works pretty well.

Amendments, however, only need a one-hour posting notice before a committee hearing. Things can start to get a little sketchy about this point as legislation can be “fast-tracked” by deliberately attaching legislative language to a bill by amendment, thus avoiding the “sunshine” of the six-day posting requirement.

The real problem with the General Assembly Rules is that they are just that: rules. They’re not in the constitution, or in state statute, but in a resolution adopted by each individual chamber. So, upon occasion, the chamber can just vote to “waive the rule requirement” if a majority of the chamber doesn’t want to follow that particular rule that day. For instance, they might want to consider a bill in committee that has not met the six-day posting requirement, or better yet, they just want to send a bill directly to the chamber floor that has never had a committee hearing. If a majority of the members vote to do it, it is done. That is the power of the majority party.

“I’m just a bill
Yes I’m only a bill ,
And I got as far as Capitol Hill.
Well, now I’m stuck in committee
And I’ll sit here and wait
While a few key Congressmen discuss and debate
Whether they should let me be a law.
How I hope and pray that they will ,
But today I am still just a bill.”

Second reading and legislative time travel

After a bill is discharged from a committee, it goes back to the chamber floor and is read into the record for a second time. Second reading is the amendment stage — the only time a bill can be amended. Many times the proposed amended language has already been agreed to in the committee hearing, but officially, the amendment is added on second reading on the chamber floor. Bills that the sponsor knows still need some additional work could sit on the “calendar” (the House/Senate agenda) for weeks waiting to be amended.

But here again is a time ripe for questionable antics. The reason for the three separate readings of a bill is to ward against someone jamming through an idea all in the same day. Theoretically, if a bill is amended on second reading, it couldn’t be voted on for final passage until the next day at the earliest (when the bill would have its third reading). But the suspension of time and time travel is a regularly occurring phenomenon in the state Capitol.

Many times a bill will be moved from second reading to third reading properly, on separate days. But maybe a week later in the sponsor decides the bill needs another amendment so the bill is “brought back to second reading.” Now it can be amended. However, and I am not making this up, the House clerk merely announces that the bill “has been read a second time previously” and the bill can be amended on second reading and called for a vote on third reading — final passage state — not only the same day but in a matter of minutes.

The tactic in most cases is benign and simply correcting a small glitch in the legislation. But the practice can allow for a deliberate skirting of the rules by tacking on a new or controversial amendment and get an immediate floor vote before allowing the public to comment.

Shell bills and other questionable procedures

Sometimes the entire process is ignored from the start. Since there is a procedure for amendment, and this requires a shorter hearing notice posting and therefore an opportunity for fewer people to see language before it is adopted, there are legislators who deliberately opt for this route.

They will introduce a “shell bill,” a piece of legislation that contains no substantive language but is moved through the process for later use. It might change the word “the” to “a” or “10” to “ten” in the Pension Code.

Say the bill is approved by a House committee and then the full House and is sent to the Senate. It is discharged by the Senate committee still in the non-substantive form. Then on the Senate floor, an amendment is added to raise the retirement age in TRS to age 75.

The bill is more than half-way through the process before anyone knew what the bill would ultimately do. Granted, it would need a couple of more votes, but in this scenario those votes could be taken in a matter of hours instead of days or weeks.

What does the governor do?

This is not a rhetorical question. Once a bill is approved by both chambers, the house of origin has 30 days to send the legislation to the governor. The governor, then, has 60 days to take action on the bill. So generally, a bill is introduced in January, the legislature meets in March and April to hold its committee hearings and adjournment is the end of May when most bills are called for final passage. The bills are sent to the governor in June and he has until August to act. If the governor vetoes a bill, it is taken up in the Veto Session in November and December. So it takes about a year for the entire legislative process. And that is how most legislation is handled.

But what about the bill that was written and submitted as a conference committee report (the final agreement between the two chambers when each had different language for a bill), approved by both houses, sent to the governor, vetoed, had the veto overridden, and became a law all in the same afternoon? It really happened; it was the 2.2 pension enhancement bill in 1998. And they even had a “bill signing” ceremony that afternoon when the governor actually amendatorily vetoed the bill? That is when you say “the bill was greased” as it moves quickly through the process with no resistance.

Only in Illinois.

“I’m just a bill
Yes, I’m only a bill
And if they vote for me on Capitol Hill
Well, then I’m off to the White House
Where I’ll wait in a line
With a lot of other bills
For the president to sign
And if he signs me, then I’ll be a law.
How I hope and pray that he will ,
But today I am still just a bill.”

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