Why is legislation developed the way it is? At Be the Change, we’ve been following a few Pennsylvania legislative bills focused on urgent issues including #COVID-19 and the #PABudget. Between the legal jargon and complicated process, it’s basically impossible for the average person to follow how bills are enacted into law by our legislators.
It almost seems like following the actual legislative process is the least productive way to understand what’s happening in state government. This can be a big problem for voters, especially if we’re under-informed on fast-moving legislation that impacts daily life outcomes.
Addressing media bias and misinformation begins with equipping ourselves with the basic skills to have well-informed opinions. Understanding how laws are made in Pennsylvania can help us hold our state legislators accountable and organize for policies that address community issues around gun violence, policing, healthcare, climate change, reproductive rights, and much more.
We created this quick and easy guide taking you through the process of how legislation is crafted in PA to help you be a stronger and more informed advocate.
Where do ideas for bills originate?
The idea for a bill could come from anywhere. This means ideas could come from you, individual legislators, organizations, the Governor, or bills considered in the past. The legislators sponsoring the idea send their proposal to the Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB), where it’s written in the proper legal text and format. The non-partisan LRB is the sole bill-drafter and publisher of laws for the #PAHouse and the #PASenate.
Then the proposal is placed in a blue folder known as blueblacks. The sponsors sign the folder, which is then sent to a chief clerk, who names the proposal with a number (i.e. House Bill 734). Now authenticated with a Printer’s Number, copies of the bill are distributed to the members of the House or Senate and made available to the public. During an average two-year term, about 5,000 bills are introduced and filed in the House Document Room by Printer’s Number. Public access to any bill is available online at www.legis.state.pa.us.
Committee review process of a bill
Bills introduced by House members go to House committees; bills introduced by Senate members go to Senate committees. There are permanent committees called Standing Committees organized by topics such as Insurance, Agriculture, Education, Finance, and Appropriations.
Thousands of bills are sent to Standing Committee for review but many are not forwarded for further consideration. The Chair of the committee represents the House or Senate chamber’s majority party and holds the power to decide what bills the committee considers. This is a significant power for one individual legislator. The committees comprise several members of both parties, but the majority party has more voting members. Approximately 75% of the bills sent to Standing Committee are never considered because they are categorized as irrelevant, too similar to existing bills, or too narrow in policy focus. Before determining the fate of the bill, Standing Committees can convene committee meetings open to the public, hold a public hearing inviting public comment, and/or refer a bill to a Subcommittee for further examination.
Caucus review of a bill
If the Standing Committee reports the bill to the Floor without alterations, it survived. However, votes are not taken on the floor without each political party having an opportunity to privately caucus (or discuss) the bill with its members. A caucus can still be called once a bill is on the Floor if controversial amendments are added.
Caucus sessions are a critical element of garnering support for a bill. The caucus sets legislative term objectives for each political party and gathers support or opposition for bills that advance or stop those goals. This can be a challenging process, especially with the large diversity of interests represented from across the state.
Not every bill will get a vote. There are various potential outcomes:
- The bill is approved as it was drafted and sent to all members of the House or Senate for consideration.
- The bill has amendments added to speed up the passage or as part of a compromise. Then the bill is sent to all members of the House or Senate for consideration.
- The bill is tabled or set aside, which makes it inactive.
- The bill is voted down or never reported from committee, which makes it null.
Approved bills go immediately to the House or Senate Appropriations Committee, where a fiscal note is prepared. The fiscal note outlines the financial impact of the legislation. Bills in the Appropriations Committee have the same potential four outcomes listed above.
Testing the bill on the Floor
After committee approval, the House or Senate, depending on the origins of the bill, must consider the bill three times on three separate days before calling on a vote for final passage. This intends to slow down the legislative process to ensure the public would have time to contact their representatives and voice their opinions of the bills being considered.
The “consideration” process of a bill is different for each day. On The First Day of Consideration, a bill is debuted from Committee. On The Second Day of Consideration the House screens the bill to determine if it has enough information to discuss. Amendments can also be offered. Bills that involve an expenditure to the state are sent to the Appropriations Committee, which provides a “fiscal note” or cost associated with enacting the bill. The Third Day of Consideration entails full debate and vote on the passage of the bill. At the end of the debate, members vote by electronic roll call. To pass, a bill requires a constitutional majority or more than half of those elected to the House or the Senate. In the House, a constitutional majority is 102 votes or more and in the Senate 26 votes or more.
If the House passes a bill, it must go to the Senate where it faces the same series of considerations in committee, caucus, and three separate deliberations on the Senate Floor. Identical versions of the bill must be passed by both the House and Senate before it can be sent to the Governor.
How a bill becomes law
When a bill passes in the House and the Senate, the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate each sign the bill in the presence of their respective legislative bodies. The bill is then sent to the Governor who can sign a bill into law, permit a bill to be law without signing it, reject a bill with a veto, and/or veto specific items in an appropriations bill. The General Assembly can override the Governor’s veto with a two-thirds majority in each body.
Use this guide to better understand the legislative process in PA and advocate for issues that represent the needs of your community! Refer to the original source of this article here.