“Writing” versus “Sponsoring”, and who decides what gets a vote?

Here’s another legislative process Q&A post. We tackle two questions in this post. Here’s the first:

Does one know who writes a bill? Is writing a bill considered different than being the Sponsor of the bill?

There’s no such term “writing” as far as I’ve ever heard. The sponsor is the Member of Congress primarily responsible for bringing the bill, resolution, or amendment to the House or Senate. Bills and resolutions can have any number of “co-sponsors”, but just one sponsor.

It’s another question entirely of who actually took pen to paper to write the text of the bill, of course. My impression is that Members rarely if ever actually write bills themselves. They have staffs as well as help from the House and Senate Offices of Legislative Counsel who specialize in turning ideas into legalese. They also get help from lobbyists — but this may not always be so bad considering that who better to write a law about something than someone who is professionally employed to know the legal issue in and out?

Here’s another question:

After a bill is introduced, how is it decided which bills will be debated on the floor and subsequently voted on?

If the bill is scheduled for debate does that ensure it will be voted on in this session of Congress?

This is determined primarily by majority party leadership. First, bills must be “reported out” of committee, and this (probably) requires the support of the chair of the committee, which is always a member of the majority party. Once out of committee, the Speaker of the House (currently Nancy Pelosi) or the Majority Leader in the Senate (currently Harry Reid, both Democrats of course) mostly determine the order in which bills are taken up for votes. In the House, the Rules Committee is also responsible for setting the order of business: essentially creating a special House rule for each item on the list of pending bills that it allows to be considered. The chair of that committee is Louise Slaughter.

Nothing guarantees that a bill ever comes up for debate or vote. This process is largely unpredictable (unless you work in the Capitol). To us on the outside, we have no idea what is going to come up until it happens (or perhaps a week before if you follow the Whip notices).

The status line on this site “Scheduled for Debate” was really a misnomer. That was listed for bills that were reported by committee or added to a “calendar of business” but neither had much of a relation to when bills actually get consideration. I am revising that now.

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9 Comments

  1. I want to write a bill called: “99 Words or Less.” Said bill will eliminate the excuses of legislators that they “didn’t have time to read the bill” or that the bill is “too complex.” Government need not be so nebulous, so deliberately overwhelming. The budget should simply read: “Budget must not put country in further debt.” “Homeland security” should mean closing and protecting our own borders FIRST. When there’s a fire within your country’s own house, fire the arsonist! Stop making excuses for thieves, no matter what their job level. Restore God and Statesmen to our Republic NOW!

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  2. I like the idea of 99 words or less. Shouldn’t contractions count as two words instead of one? How many punctuation marks should we allow? Use of polysyllabic non-hyphenated single meaning words should be insisted upon. A Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level less than 7 should be enforced. Which God should we restore to our Republic? Oooh, pick me! Pick me!

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  3. Julie, I agree with you. The legalese in these bills and government documents is meant to be confusing. We need to demand clear and concise language. Ever try to read the fine print in a contract? I was employed in the legal profession for a great number of years and I saw this firsthand. As a side note to “Gawd Almighty” – you have too much time on your hands!

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  4. @Joanne

    Perhaps laws should have the same regulation as contracts: the rule that they must be written in plain English, and that any parts a normal person would not understand, or parts that are ambiguous would go against the writer of the bill, This would mean that any provision of a bill that a normal person, judged by the standards of those ruled by it (so it contracts the signing party who agrees to the contract offer, and in this example the constituents that will be regulated or limited) then it is null and void.

    People cant read minds, and the language of these bills implies that the people must. As this form of writing is intentional it should always be ruled against the writing party.

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  5. Regarding the issue of what Bills that are proposed in the House actually come up for a vote, it appears that the majority party can essentially “kill” a proposed bill by referring it to a committee where it languishes until that session of Congress is over…is that an accurate observation?

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  6. Yes. But the killing isn’t so much in the referral to committee (all bills get referred to committee) as it is that the committee chair doesn’t consider it important enough to spend time on.

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  7. Julie,

    The 99 word limit is a great idea, but as much as I like it, it probably is impractical.

    Another approach is being presented by Downsize DC.. They have a project called “Read The Bills Act” (RTBA) which would require all bills to be read before the full body voting on it prior to the vote being taken. This would make it hard to pass 1000 page bills.

    RTBA would also require all bills to be posted on the internet for 7 days prior to the vote. This would allow the public to become familiar with the legislation and give time to contact their reps and senators with their input. http://www.DownsizeDC.org.

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  8. who decides if a sponsored bill gets out of committee? does the chairman have the ability to take a bill forth without support of the majority of the committee? can the chairman refuse to take a bill forth if the majority of the committee supports it?

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  9. Bill- As best I know, a majority of the committee decides whether a bill will get out of committee or not. Committee rules vary from committee to committee and I’m not an expert, but I think that’s the typical rule. However, the party that has majority control of each chamber also has majority control of each committee and control of the chair position. Because of that alignment, in practice, the chair has enormous control and the rest of his party will normally back him up. Perhaps not always, but usually.

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