Starter Kit: How a Bill (really) Becomes a Law

We at Civics 101 adore Schoolhouse Rock and that sad little scrap of paper on the steps of the Capitol. But today we try to finish what they started, by diving into the messy, partisan, labyrinthine process of modern-day legislation.

This episode features the voices of Andy Wilson, Adia Samba-Quee, Alizah Ross, and Eleanor Powell.

Have a civics question you want answered? Let us know in the form below and we'll try to answer it!


 NOTE: This transcript was generated using an automated transcription service, and may contain typographical errors.


Civics 101

Starter Kit: How a Bill (really) Becomes a Law

Adia Samba-Quee: [00:00:00] Civics 101 one is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


Nick Capodice: [00:00:04] Well, here it is. Saw this coming a mile away.


Schoolhouse Rock: [00:00:07] You sure have to climb a lot of steps to get this Capitol building here in Washington. Well, I wonder who that sad little scrap of paper is. I'm just a bill. Yes, I'm only a bill. And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:00:21] Do kids even know about this? Schoolhouse Rock?


Nick Capodice: [00:00:25] I don't even know. It was an educational animated TV show from the 1970s. I think we should ask a student.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:00:33] Got anyone in mind?


Adia Samba-Quee: [00:00:35] Hello. It's Nick isn't it?


Nick Capodice: [00:00:37] It is Nick, hi Adia


Adia Samba-Quee: [00:00:42] Yes, Nick! Hi.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:00:42] Adia, Hi Adia


Nick Capodice: [00:00:43] Adia Samba Quee was our first student contest winner. She's a civics friend. She'd just finished taking a test when I called her.


Nick Capodice: [00:00:49] What was the test on.


Adia Samba-Quee: [00:00:51] First and second New Deal programs and then describe like how like some of them still exist in real life. And then talk about like how like they were successful or not at like ending the Great Depression.


Nick Capodice: [00:01:02] I asked her if she knew the song I'm just a bill.


Adia Samba-Quee: [00:01:06] Yes. I had to watch it in fourth grade. We didn't even know what; I remember that where they talk about the prospect of a bill becoming law. Oh, God. Like I know how a bill becomes law, but not with the help of that video.


Nick Capodice: [00:01:20] So then I called a teacher, Alizah Ross. She teaches high school AP gov. I asked her if she shows it to her class.


Alizah Ross: [00:01:26] Every time. They love it. They ask for it. And then there is always like one or two kids that are like, I've never seen it. And then I feel like they have to see it. I think that there are some details that are definitely missing.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:01:39] So what's missing?


Nick Capodice: [00:01:48] This. All of this.


Nick Capodice: [00:02:01] I'm Nick Capodice.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:02:01] And I'm Hannah McCarthy.


Nick Capodice: [00:02:03] And today on Civics 101 in our Starter Kit series, we are going to follow that thread through the labyrinth. We are going to see how a bill really becomes a law. And I wasn't dragging on Schoolhouse Rock. It taught me that bills are brilliant ideas that are proposed. They go through committee, get voted on. Go to the other House. End up on the president's desk. Zip zap zop. Bob's your uncle.


Eleanor Powell: [00:02:25] So that's the sort of ideal version it's supposed to work.


Nick Capodice: [00:02:28] This is Eleanor Powell. She's the Booth Fellow associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin.


Eleanor Powell: [00:02:34] In practice, it very rarely works that way, and it's certainly not that simple. So in this unorthodox, messy world in which we live, essentially there are two parts.


Nick Capodice: [00:02:45] Two roads diverged in a chamber of Congress.


Eleanor Powell: [00:02:49] So one is the really easy path where essentially if everybody's on the same page, there's not a lot of bipartisan disagreement. There's not a lot of conflict. What happens is essentially both chambers use these expedited procedures.


Eleanor Powell: [00:03:02] The other path, the path of most legislation that you actually read about in the paper and you hear about in the news is the stuff that's more controversial where there's more partisan disagreement. That stuff gets hard and very messy.


Nick Capodice: [00:03:14] We're going to follow the complicated path for now. So part one: coming up with it.


Andy Wilson: [00:03:19] So the first thing is you have to come up with a bill. You have to have an idea. And then you have to translate that idea into what's called legislative language.


Nick Capodice: [00:03:27] I talked to Andy Wilson. He's a former staffer on Capitol Hill.


Andy Wilson: [00:03:30] An actual bill that adds to or commends some part of the United States code of laws.


Nick Capodice: [00:03:38] Members of Congress work with their staff to write bills. They can also get help if they need it from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Counsel. Experts on legal language and how to write laws.


Andy Wilson: [00:03:49] So sometimes when you have the idea and you have a written, you take some time to gather up support for the bill as co-sponsors before you introduce it.


Nick Capodice: [00:03:56] If you've got several members of Congress as co-sponsors to a bill, that's a signal that this bill has lots of support. Co-sponsors are just adding their name to it. They might not have even read the thing. Bills in the House can have a few co-sponsors. They can have hundreds of co-sponsors, which makes them many times more likely to become a law. And as to crafting a bill, I never knew this. Anybody can write one. Special interest groups, lobbyists, people who are raising money for your campaign. It just has to be proposed by a member of Congress.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:04:26] So once you, along with your staff, the Office of Legislative Counsel and anyone else you fancy have written a bill, where does it go?


Andy Wilson: [00:04:34] In the House? You have to take it down to the clerk of the House, which is a team of people that sit near where the president gives the State of the Union address every year. And you have to drop the physical piece of paper with the legislative language on it into a box. And that box is called the hopper.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:04:53] The hopper?


Nick Capodice: [00:04:53] Yes. In 2003, they replaced their hopper from the 1950s. It's just a wooden box.


Andy Wilson: [00:05:00] But the clerk takes the bill and gives it a number in sequential order. So the first one in the new Congress is H R one, House resolution one or S. one, Senate resolution one. And then it's assigned to the relevant committee based on whatever the topic of the of the bill is. So if it's a bill that has to do with foreign policy, it's it's directed to the Foreign Relations Committee. If it's got to do with farm policy, it's referred to the Agriculture Committee and so on.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:05:31] Who is in charge of deciding what committee it gets assigned to?


Nick Capodice: [00:05:35] That is the speaker of the House or the Senate parliamentarian. Sometimes it even goes to more than one committee.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:05:41] All right. Written, dropped in the hopper. Assigned number and assigned to a committee.


Nick Capodice: [00:05:45] Right. Part two committee.


Nick Capodice: [00:05:52] The House has 20 permanent committees. The Senate has 17. And there's also four joint committees which have members of both the House and the Senate.


Andy Wilson: [00:05:59] The committees are formed to have expertise in a particular area so that they can be the first line of review of a particular topic instead of the whole house having to look at every little thing. So it's both to have deeper expertise on a given topic when looking at the various proposals that come before Congress and to have a little bit better process and having a more wieldy way in which the Congress can do its business.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:06:27] So who gets to be on these committees.


Nick Capodice: [00:06:29] Before each new Congress, every two years. There's a committee committee who chooses who gets to be in the committees. But what's most important about committees is that whichever party has a majority in the House or the Senate also has the majority in every single committee. For example, in 2019, the Agriculture Committee in the House has more Democrats than Republicans, and the Agriculture Committee in the Senate has more Republicans than Democrats.


Andy Wilson: [00:06:56] So that's why one of the reasons why the party that's in majority has so much power, because they really have the ability to set the agenda, to set the terms of the debate and to ultimately decide what is voted on and what is in committee and in in the full House or the full Senate.


Nick Capodice: [00:07:15] These bills get read sometimes for the very first time. They get hearings. They're discussed. Experts are called in to speak to the effects of a bill. They get marked up amendments are added.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:07:26] Question.


Nick Capodice: [00:07:26] Yeah.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:07:27] It's about amendments to bills, the kinds of things that can be added.


Nick Capodice: [00:07:29] Right.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:07:31] Did you see the speech that Jon Stewart gave the House committee on that 9/11 First Responders bill?


Jon Stewart: [00:07:37] It'll get stuck in some transportation bill or some appropriations bill and get sent over to the Senate where a certain someone from the Senate will use it as a political football to get themselves maybe another new import tax on petroleum, because that's what happened to us in 2015.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:07:56] What was he talking about?


Nick Capodice: [00:07:57] That line stuck out to me and I emailed Andy about it and he said that in the House, amendments to bills have to be, quote, germane. That means that they are relevant to the bill at hand. But in the Senate, there is no germane rule. You can propose any amendments on any topic whatsoever to a bill. So if you're a senator and you can't get your own bill to the floor and it doesn't have a lot of support, one thing you can do is get someone in a committee to put the stuff you want as a rider to another different, totally irrelevant bill. But this time period, this process of committee is where most bills die. And it's not because people vote on them in the committee and they say this is a bad bill. It's just they never get out a committee. So much time and effort and it just dies on the vine.


Andy Wilson: [00:08:45] It can simply disappear into the committee ether and never be heard from again.


Nick Capodice: [00:08:52] And if a bill doesn't make it to the floor for a vote in a Congress, it's dead. You have to start from the beginning and the next Congress, 90 percent of bills die in committee.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:09:03] Are committee members required to do anything like give a bill, a hearing.


Nick Capodice: [00:09:08] No they can just put it in the endless to-do pile.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:09:12] All right. So what if by luck and determination and bipartisan support, a bill survives the committee process and the committee reports it out and says this thing is ready for a vote? Is it then put on the calendar?


Nick Capodice: [00:09:24] Absolutely not. No way. In the House of Representatives, the Speaker of the House decides which bills that make it out of committee, gets to the floor for a vote. And in the Senate, it's the Senate majority leader who decides what gets voted on.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:09:38] Theoretically, can the speaker of the House or the Senate majority leader just kill a bill by not letting it get to a vote?


Nick Capodice: [00:09:44] Up until now, I've been talking about the House process and the Senate process as being pretty much the same. But here we have a major difference. The Speaker of the House. Yes. Can kill a bill, but there is a rarely enacted check on that power. It's called a discharge petition. Where if a majority of members of the House sign a physical petition, a piece of paper, that bill then gets brought out of committee and onto the floor for debate.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:10:11] What's the check in the Senate?


Nick Capodice: [00:10:14] Nothing. There's no discharge petition in the Senate. If the Senate majority leader does not want your bill to get voted on, there will be no vote. The only check on this power is election. The American people voting in a new majority party.


Nick Capodice: [00:10:29] Wanna talk about debate.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:10:38] Yeah, sure.


Nick Capodice: [00:10:39] Part 3 debate. First off, the house.


Andy Wilson: [00:10:45] In the house there's a really interesting and weird process called the Rules Committee, where any bill that's going to be debated in the full house has to go through the Rules Committee, where the Rules Committee votes on and determines what the terms of the debate will be. How much time will be a allotted for each side, what amendments might be in order. And when sort of the votes would be taking place. Generally, that's all controlled by the Speaker of the House.


[00:11:14] Said rule provides one hour of debate on the motion, equally divided and controlled by the chair and the ranking minority member.


Nick Capodice: [00:11:21] This is why you hear 'I yield the remainder of my time to the congresswoman from Delaware.' But in the Senate.


Ted Cruz: [00:11:28] Do you like green eggs and ham?


Nick Capodice: [00:11:30] There is no rules committee. You can talk as long as you like.


Ted Cruz: [00:11:37] Would you like them here or there? I would not like them here or there. I would not like them anywhere. I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not.


Eleanor Powell: [00:11:47] It's worth actually talking about what a filibuster is.


Nick Capodice: [00:11:49] This is Eleanor Powell again. And that was Texas Senator Ted Cruz reading Green Eggs and Ham in an attempt to block the Affordable Care Act in 2015.


Eleanor Powell: [00:11:57] So a filibuster is just any type of delay or obstruction that any individual senator can engage in. So it's not just the standing up and talking until you pass out the sort of old school filibuster that we used to think about. Now it's really a much broader category. And so the Senate really changed how they handle filibusters. So used to be you had to hold the floor of the Senate and you talk and talk until you can no longer talk anymore. And that's how you would break a filibuster. You'd wait somebody out.


Nick Capodice: [00:12:27] Cloture stops filibuster. If you invoke cloture you are asking to end of the debate and the filibuster and then have a vote. And it requires three fifths of the Senate to invoke cloture, 60 votes, which is a ton. The world record filibuster is currently held by Senator Strom Thurmond. He talked for 24 hours and 18 minutes in 1957 to block civil rights legislation. He also apparently took steam baths beforehand to dehydrate himself so that he wouldn't have to pee. But it doesn't really work like that anymore.


Eleanor Powell: [00:13:01] Now, essentially, the way it works is essentially you declare your intent that you would filibuster something. And so instead of trying to wait you out, they're going to try to proceed via cloture or just give up entirely or try to convince you might change your mind. And so the cloture vote, you know, getting 60 votes on something is really hard. That's a really tough threshold. And so this distinction where instead of having to talk yourself hoarse,.


Jimmy Stewart: [00:13:30] You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked. I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause, even if this room gets filled with lies like these.


Eleanor Powell: [00:13:39] Now that you only have to signal that you would filibuster, the costs of filibuster, are much, much lower than they used to be for an individual who doesn't like the legislation. And so that's one the really big changes that we've seen from essentially, you know, the fact that the majority responds to a filibuster by saying taking the threat is sincere and just saying, all right, we'll either have a vote to try to make you stop or we'll just give up rather than sort of try and force you to actually hold the floor and have this like long all night marathon. And that's what sort of made the cost of filibuster much lower for any individual senator who wants a change to some piece of legislation.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:14:19] Let me get this clear.


Nick Capodice: [00:14:20] Yeah.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:14:20] You don't need to stand up there anymore to block legislation. You just need to have the 41 people on your side say, yeah, we would block legislation and nobody has to bother with the steam baths.


Nick Capodice: [00:14:31] As things work now in the Senate, that's how you block a bill.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:14:35] So what does this mean for legislation?


Eleanor Powell: [00:14:37] So it's, it's had a huge impact. I mean, it means in practice now that you have to get, you know, 60 percent of the Senate on board, you in practice have to have bipartisan buy-in at least some level of bipartisan buy-in. And that just means very, very few things can pass through the Senate in its current form. And that's why we've seen here the majority in the Senate take you increasing steps to actually weaken the filibuster. Right. And we no longer allow you have filibusters or we lower the cloture vote threshold on judicial nominations, confirmations, that sort of stuff. Used to also require 60 votes for folks to get confirmed. Now, we've lowered that because not enough folks were getting confirmed. The majority felt they couldn't get their way.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:15:21] So the Senate makes their own rules for filibustering cloture.


Nick Capodice: [00:15:23] They do.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:15:24] Theoretically. If the Senate wanted to, they could just get rid of it. They could make cloture always 50 votes.


Nick Capodice: [00:15:31] They could.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:15:36] So are we here yet? The vote?


Nick Capodice: [00:15:39] Right. I'd almost forgotten the vote.


Andy Wilson: [00:15:45] The speaker of the House or the president pro tem in the Senate. Whoever is the presiding officer of the House at the time calls the calls the vote. Sometimes there's a voice vote in the Senate, for example, each member will come down, no name will be called, and they'll say I or nay, in the House, they typically vote by electronic device, which which means each member of Congress has a little card like a credit card, and they stick it into a reader and then they press green for yes. Read for no. And then the votes are tallied that way.


Nick Capodice: [00:16:19] Remember when Eleanor said that there are two paths to legislation and we've been going down the real gnarly one?


Hannah McCarthy: [00:16:23] Yeah.


Nick Capodice: [00:16:24] Let's take a little diversion down the Bunny Hill, suspending the rules. If the bill is relatively non-controversial, you can do what's called vote under suspension of the rules. If two thirds of the House agrees, you can ignore all the rules and debate and procedures.


Eleanor Powell: [00:16:40] And in the Senate, you actually have a unanimous consent agreement. So literally every single senator is on board and you just go ahead and pass it and you can just sort of skip all the other rules and the messiness. If people are, if there's no sort of partisan disagreement, we can just do this sort of easy process and lots of legislation passes that way.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:16:57] What kinds of laws get this fast track treatment.


Eleanor Powell: [00:17:00] Sort of standard everyday things that may not ever make it into a, you know, a headline in terms of the news, but in which there actually is a fair degree of, you know, bipartisan buy in. So this could be everything from symbolic bill. So renaming a post office, sort of relatively noncontroversial things, but even sort of more complicated things. You know, things like, you know, it's tough to even think of examples now because they tend to disagree on everything. But there are spending bills. There are other sorts of things where we do see a bipartisan buy and where essentially no one objects. And they've worked out their disagreements behind closed doors.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:17:41] How often is that?


Nick Capodice: [00:17:42] Pretty darn often. In the house, about 60 percent of bills are passed under suspension.


[00:17:47] Relative The rules are suspended. The bill is passed. And without objection, the motion to reconsider is laid on the table.


Nick Capodice: [00:17:53] After debate and maybe suspension of the rules in both the House and the Senate, it just requires a simple majority to win a vote. So it can pass. It can fail. There can be a motion to recommit, which means it's got to go back to committee for some work. But if it passes, all it has to do then is just go to the other chamber of Congress for the same exact process. Committee assignment, committee hearings, markup amendments. Reporting out. debate. vote. Because before that bill gets to the desk of the president. We've got just one more committee. If the language of a bill is exactly the same in both the House and the Senate, it goes to the president's desk to be signed. But that very rarely happens. Usually legislation goes to what's called the conference committee. Senior members of the committees in both the House and the Senate who worked on that bill. They meet and they talk and they argue and they decide one final version that both houses are happy with.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:18:59] And that goes to the president.


Nick Capodice: [00:19:01] That that my old friend that goes to the president is so close, so close, you could just taste it. The last part, presidential actions.


Nick Capodice: [00:19:15] The president can sign it and it becomes a law. The president can also veto it, saying, I don't like this bill and it doesn't become a law, but the Congress can override a veto with a two thirds majority vote. Also, the president can just ignore a bill if it's left on that desk for 10 days. It becomes a law even without the president's signature. However, if the Congress adjourns before those 10 days are up, it does not become a law. This is called a pocket veto.


Nick Capodice: [00:19:46] And there you have it. What do you think?


Hannah McCarthy: [00:19:49] It sounds to me like this whole process is mostly about committees, like the committee is the most important thing.


Nick Capodice: [00:19:55] Yeah. Most bills die in committee. Committees determine everything when it comes to bills, and Eleanor said something that I hadn't thought about, that people in committees have areas of expertise and they know people who work in the industry. But the influence of committees on bills has recently shifted.


Eleanor Powell: [00:20:10] You know, congressional committees are really important in the legislative process. But one of the changes we've seen over the last several decades is party leaders increasingly taking power away from the committees. And a lot of what the committees are doing is sort of implementing changes that the party leaders wants to see in the legislation that have been sort of already agreed upon by the majority.


Nick Capodice: [00:20:32] That is my big takeaway for this whole episode, pretty much for the whole series that nobody can do anything by themselves unless one party has the presidency and the House and 61 seats in the Senate. There must be compromise and tons of it before you even begin the process. In the 115th Congress, of the proposed thirteen thousand five hundred and fifty six bills, 443 became law.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:21:09] You wanna take a whack at this?


Nick Capodice: [00:21:10] I'd usually save this for a post credits joke. You wanna leade me in.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:21:14] What do I say??


Nick Capodice: [00:21:14] You got to say, I wonder who that sad little scrap of paper is.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:21:18] I wonder who that sad little scrap of paper is.


Nick Capodice: [00:21:23] I'm just a bill. Yes, I'm only a bill. And my fate was pretty much determined by the party in power. Well, I was written by the staff of a member of Congress and also helped some lobbyists in the Office of Legislative Counsel. But I was drop in the hopper and given a number


Nick Capodice: [00:21:42]  But to day, I'm still just a bill.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:21:49] Gosh, Bill, what happens in a committee.


Nick Capodice: [00:21:50] Well, I'll tell you, my young shaver. You See, committee is where I’m read and talked about and there are hearings and if I’m super lucky I get reported out, that means I’ll be either killed or sent to the whole house for debate, after teh rules committee of course, but the number of members in a committee who decide whats gets reported out is directly proportional to the partisan makeup of the respective chamber of congress, if the house has 235 democrats and 197 republicans, the committee will have about 22 democrats and 17 republicans and in the unlikely event that I get a hearing by the committee or subcommittee, I am debated and investigated for a good long while, but if there’s no way I can get a 61 person majority in the senate, maybe the committee says why bother even talking about it, it’ll never work! But if it is reported out favorably in the house it goes to the rules committee who decides the terms of the debate and what amendments can be added. The speaker of the house is in charge of the calendar for when bills are debated and voted upon the floor and the senate majority leader is in charge of the calendar, and in the house an absolute majority of members can sign a discharge petition to drag it out of committee and onto the floor for a vote but that’s happened a handful of times since 1985. There’s also the hastert rule, which I didn't  talk about in the episode, which is more of an informal rule, where the speaker of the house won’t let bills come to the floor that don’t have the support of the majority party, even if the bill would theoretically pass! And we’re just getting started! Maybe we can just suspend the rules and vote and the post office is named after Frank Harrigan the third,  Hooray! Frank, we're so glad you got your post office.




Nick Capodice: [00:23:15] That's it for today, and that's it for the whole darn starter kit series.

[00:23:19] We're going to be back in a few weeks. Can't believe it's over. Today's episode was produced by me Nick Capodice with you, Hannah McCarthy. Thank you.


Hannah McCarthy: [00:23:26] Thank you, Nick. Editorial help from Jacqi Fulton, Ben Henry and Samantha Searles. Erika Janik is our executive producer and Sway Back Adirondack Pack Basket.


Nick Capodice: Maureen MacMurray takes steam bath before managers meetings

Hannah McCarthy: music in this episode by Schoolhouse Rock. Chris Zabriskie, Bisou, Uncle Bibby, Lee Rosevere, Kevin McCloud, Mild Wild, Cooper Cannell and Blue Dot Sessions. And a very special thanks to Sophia Jordan Wallace, who schooled us on representation in Congress.


Nick Capodice: [00:23:53] We do it often. We do not do it often enough. Civics teachers, AP gov high school gov, social studies, whatever. If you've used any of our episodes in your class, we really want to hear about it. Drop us a line.


Hannah McCarthy [00:24:05] Civics 101 is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and is a production of an NHPR New Hampshire Public Radio.






Made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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