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How is a Bill Actually Passed?

By: Logan Roscoe

Image Courtesy of Unsplash

In the United States, the process to make a bill a law is filled with stringent checks and balances. It is an inflexible system that ensures mistakes cannot easily be made on flippant procedures and whims. However, it is a supposedly accessible system, as a bill can come from anyone in America: citizens, members of Congress, special-interest groups, or the president. With such accessibility, individuals and groups who are normally overlooked or have a unique perspective have an opportunity to make a difference in the legislative realm. This said, there are many authoritative and divided voices that must declare their opinion on the matter, making the bill to law process a lengthy and tedious matter.

Though the bill can come from anyone, it must be introduced or sponsored in Congress by a member of Congress. After a member introduces it, it is sent to a committee most equipped to discuss the matter. A subcommittee researches the bill and its context, then reports back on their findings for the upper committee to decide its fate. They can approve it with or without amendments, reject it, not consider it, or set it aside and write a new bill on the subject. During this first wave of decisions, most bills do not continue forth in the process.

If the bill survived the committee’s decision, the Congressmen within the chamber in which the bill was introduced shall debate its fate. From there, both chambers (the Senate and the House of Representatives) attempt to alter or revise the bill should they see it necessary in an attempt to approve an identical bill. The House of Representatives has the strictest rules, and there are fewer debates within the Senate due to filibusters and cloture.

If both chambers approve an identical bill, it then moves to the President. The President can veto or override the bill rather than approve if they would like. If they do this then both chambers must vote with a ⅔ majority to override the President’s veto.

The reality of passing a bill is more arduous than a simple yet meticulous list of steps may otherwise indicate. In 2021, 9,883 bills were introduced in Congress, and yet only 85 bills were passed. That is a 0.86% passage rate. Depending on one’s viewpoint of how the government should operate, this is a polarizing reality. Those who advocate that the government should have little power and opportunities to have authoritative reign might be happy to see this small number. However, those who advocate for change within policies and society might be discouraged to see how slow progress moves in the legislative realm. This slowness is due in part to the party system and the gridlocks that stem from partisan divides.

There is currently a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and Senate, yet the Senate sees a pretty even split. This minute advantage proves feeble in many attempts to get a majority vote in both chambers. Moreover, should there be a clear and large majority in both chambers, it is a dangerous outlook for the minority party, even if they have the majority in other branches of the US government. Another frustration is the low turnout of voters in state and local elections, which will determine who will represent the states in the House of Representative and Senate. The National Civic League reports that, “Across the U.S., only 15 to 27 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in their local election.” There is also a disproportionate representation of demographic voters, with the majority of state and local voters being white and affluent citizens. The most difficult points in elections are spreading information about them, physically getting voters to the voting booths, and, of course, fighting the ever-present notion that one citizen’s vote “won’t matter”.

These difficulties cause disproportionate representation when it comes time to decide on bills. Therefore, it ultimately minimizes the value in letting everyone propose a bill, because many times the political structure and demographic homogeneity of Congress doesn’t allow for the sight of these unseen issues.

As of August 7th, 2022, the Senate approved the Democrats’ $750 billion health care, tax, and climate bill, The Inflation Reduction Act. The final vote was 50-51 with Vice President Kamala Harris being the tiebreaker. The Inflation Reduction Act would be the largest climate investment in US History, according to CNN, and would give “Medicare the power for the first time to negotiate the prices of certain prescription drugs and extending expiring health care subsidies for three years”. Many of the profits would go towards reducing climate emissions.

The Democrats of the Senate with a tight 50-seat majority had to perform a filibuster-proof plan to get the bill approved without Republican votes. They had to win over many individual Senators, such as Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, who said that the bill passed his test because it specifically didn’t raise individual income tax rates. This bill is a good representation for the game of give-and-take and intense preparation process to achieve a win for a bill as politically-charged as this one. A couple weeks later, the Democratic-majority House of Representatives approved the bill, as well as President Biden. The bill is now on its way to be put into effect.

The previous example is a rare win, but it is nonetheless a win in the environmental justice realm. Legislative change requires the efforts of voting representatives in—representatives who for one reason or another feel moved to enact environmental change. Without the people outside the government, this bill could not have eventually reached the president’s desk. Average citizens feel most profoundly the consequences of environmental justice’s action or inaction, and it is the same consequences that will be magnified for our future generations. As such, even when faced with a stringent system that our proposed bills must navigate, as average citizens, it is our duty to make noise and efforts—to push in every direction until we find the weakest points in the rigid and sometimes unfair system and eventually break through them.

Here at Seaside Sustainability, we try to minimize the difficulties that come with such a stringent system by maximizing our attempts at making change. Letter writing campaigns, email campaigns, and letters to editors are all examples of what we’ve done to get the ball rolling towards such change. We have directly enacted state bottle bills, single use plastic bans, and more. At Seaside Sustainability, in schools, or even in one’s living room, therein lies the opportunity for change—a minute possibility for change, but all bills currently enacted once started as ideas.

We must regard all these efforts at change as being capable of reaching the president’s desk. If not, then we are instigators of the belief in an inaccessible legislative system. To ignore the possibility for change is to allow injustice to reign.


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