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 the laws being voted on by our legislators.
It almost seems like following the actual legislative process is the least productive way to understand what’s happening in government. This can be a big problem as voters, especially if we’re under-informed on fast-moving legislation that are impacting 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 needs. This includes issues around gun violence, policing, healthcare, climate change, reproductive rights, and much more.
We created this quick and easy guide taking the life cycle of fictional House Bill 105 as an example 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 it 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 nonpartisan 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
The Speaker of the House refers a bill to a committee, which decides if the bill should be considered. There are 24 permanent committees called Standing Committees organized by topics such as Insurance, Agriculture, Education, Finance, and Appropriations. Standing Committees are composed of 15 House members of the party that holds the majority in the House and 11 House members of the minority party.
Thousands of bills are sent to Standing Committee for review but many are not forwarded for further consideration. 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. When the bill is ready to be voted on, a Standing Committee can table the bill to make it inactive, change or amend the bill, defeat the bill or accept the bill.
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 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.
Testing the bill on the Floor
All bills eventually leave caucus rooms to be considered on the House Floor. Based on the Constitution, each bill must be considered 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. If the Senate calls for amendments, this can lengthen the process because the bill would have to be sent back to the House.
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 Pennsylvania and advocate for issues that represent the needs of your community! Or refer to the original source of this article here.