The Evolution of a Bill: Teaching Legislative Process

Article excerpt

Congressman Edward Rees of Kansas introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives on February 8, 1954, to create a national holiday that would honor our nation's veterans. He said in a speech on the floor of the House that he did it so that "a grateful nation may pay proper homage to all its veterans who have contributed so much to the cause of world peace and the preservation of our way of life." We know that today Americans do celebrate Veterans Day on November 11, but what happened between Rees's speech on behalf of veterans and the establishment of the national holiday?

"All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives." --(Article I, Section 1, U.S. Constitution)

Three documents illustrate how the bill became a law. The first is a working copy of Rees's bill (p. 367). Looking at the bill as reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, students can locate evidence of the steps in the legislative process.

The first item one notices is the bill number, H.R. 7786. Students will learn that the "H.R." indicates that the bill was introduced in the House of Representatives. The number indicates that this bill was the 7,786th bill to be introduced into the House in the 83rd Congress, which was in its second session. When a bill is introduced in the Senate, it is also given a number, but with the prefix "S" (e.g., S. 382). The numbering of bills begins anew every two years at the start of each new Congress.

The bill to create Veterans Day states that it is being considered "in the Senate of the United States." The notation at the end by the clerk of the House indicates that this bill had already passed the House and had been sent to the Senate for consideration. As stated in the Constitution, all bills must pass both houses in identical form. This copy of Rees's bill, then, is from the middle stage of the process.

More evidence of the process through which a bill becomes a law appears on the line below the date. Here the bill indicates that it has been "read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary." The referral of the bill to a committee plays a large role in the life of a bill. Congress's workload is divided up and assigned to committees. The committees may investigate, hold hearings, revise legislation, and issue reports.

This bill indicates that the Judiciary Committee, then-chaired by Senator William Langer of North Dakota, issued Senate Report # 1359. The report, which is available in government depository libraries across the country, states that at the hearings pertaining to the bill, "representatives of the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans, and the American Veterans Committee appeared and urged favorable consideration of the proposed legislation." Veterans groups' support of the bill in the committee hearings sheds light on another part of the process for this bill: that it was "reported by Mr. Langer without amendment." For many bills, information obtained through hearings can prompt committee members to revise the bill and report it with amendments to the full chamber for the consideration of all members. This was not the case with this bill.

The calendar number 1369 that appears in the top right corner of the bill is evidence of how Congress organizes its business. After the bill is reported out of committee, a clerk assigns a calendar number, and the bill awaits its turn to be debated. In the Senate, there is one calendar for bills; and the leader of the majority party determines when a bill will be scheduled for debate by the entire chamber. In the House, where the larger membership requires more tightly controlled and organized scheduling, there are five calendars ell which a bill can be placed, and bills are considered from the various calendars on a regularly scheduled basis. …