Monday, January 18, 2010

More on the Legislative Process

We have a joke around the State House. There's two things you don't want to see being made; sausage and laws.

For many the idea of how a law gets made may come from a source as legitimate as C-Span where debate on a topic is shown and a vote is taken. Movies or other dramatic programs may fill the knowledge gap for others. It is often portrayed as it happens; legislators introduce a bill, lobbyists try to persuade a vote in their favour, the bill is discussed and a vote is taken.

In Indiana, at least, there is much more to it. Indiana follows a procedure similar to that of the federal legislature and many other states.

A concept is first introduced either to a legislator or an interim study committee. There are various committees, each comprised of a small group of legislators, usually about 10, that meet prior to the regular session beginning. These committees hear matters related to particular topics such as local government, finance, education or family law.

Any legislator, citizen or lobbyist may ask a committee chairperson to have the committee hear their idea. If the chair sets the matter for hearing then the petitioner can present his or her issue to the committee and members of the public, including lobbyists, may speak in support or opposition to the issue. The committee may ask questions of those people testifying but they may not ask questions of the members.

If there is a specific idea that has been formally presented to the interim committee it is called a preliminary draft. The committee may also have its own draft prepared after consideration of an issue. The chair may ask for a vote on the issue. A majority vote in favour will bring a recommendation to pass from the committee to the House or Senate.

A bill may be submitted by a legislator, known as the sponsor, without going through the interim committee process though. Whether a draft or a bill the specific language of the changes sought are sent to the Legislative Services Agency [LSA] whose lawyers write the language as they best feel will accomplish the purpose of the bill. They also check for cross-references to the Indiana Code and then draft the bill as needed. I always write my own bills and LSA usually modifies them in some manner. A legislator then submits the bill to the appropriate chamber. It is then read into the record which is known as the first reading.

At this point the process is similar to that of the interim committees. The Senate and House each have their own committees to hear bills related to specific subject matters. Committee chairs have the opportunity to conduct a few hearings where numerous bills are heard. There are always significantly more bills than there is available time to hear them. This means that the chair must be convinced to set a particular bill for hearing. If the bill does not get set for hearing then it is dead at that point.

When a bill is set for hearing it is put on the committee schedule, usually about a week before the hearing. Any citizen or lobbyist may come speak in favour or opposition to the bill. Just as the interim study committee would pass a proposal on to the House or Senate committee these committees send a bill on to the House or Senate for a second reading when passing it by a majority vote. If the bill does not get a favourable majority then it is dead.

A bill will be heard before the full chamber in a proceeding similar to the committee proceedings except that only legislators speak about the bill. Legislators may offer amendments to the bill at this point which is known as a floor amendment. Amendments can be offered for the purpose of improving the bill or for delaying or killing it. If a bill is amended then it comes back for a third reading and a vote. If it is not amended then a vote is taken upon the conclusion of testimony. A majority vote passes the bill where it then goes to the governor.

There is much that goes on behind the scenes as well. This is where you may envision the television dramas. Lobbyists lavishing gifts or all-expense-paid trips on legislators or secret deals where one legislator promises to vote for a bill if he or she gets the same promise of a vote for his or her own bill. This is less of a reality than what is portrayed though. I was talking to a Senator last week about lobbying. He told me that I don't have to buy him a lunch or anything. He will always listen to what I have to say and vote for it if he feels it is best. Often times the money lobbyists spend on legislators simply buys time to get their voice heard and nothing more.

After a bill I was involved with was recently narrowly passed out of committee I spoke with each committee member and other legislators about it. This provided to me the opportunity to learn what their true concerns where with the legislation and what they would like to see changed before they could provide their full support. I may seek to have the bill amended by one of these legislators on the floor or choose to stick to my guns and try to push it through as written. I believe I could get it to narrowly pass but must weigh the risk.

A way to get a dead bill passed is to use the amendment process. I had one bill introduced this year that I do not believe will get a hearing. However, another bill of a similar nature is already headed to the floor for a vote. After I speak with more legislators I will decide if I should have the dead bill added as an amendment to the one on the floor or if I should have it reintroduced next session.

The risk in amending is that it may provide a bill that a legislator who previously supported the bill now will not. Contrarily it may provide a reason for a legislator to support the bill who had not been in favour of the bill before it was amended. This is where it is like the news accounts you hear of many amendments being added to an unrelated bill. It may be the only way a legislator gets his or her bill to become law and the only way a sponsor can get support.

It is not a simple process and, at times, seems very unreasonable but after going through it I have seen some merit to it. I believe this process allows for ideas to be fully vetted and produce stronger laws. Although at times it does seem to clog the system and keep laws from getting passed. That may be a good thing though.


Indiana Custodial Rights Advocates

©2010 Stuart Showalter, LLC. Permission is granted to all non-commercial entities to reproduce this article in it's entirety with credit given.

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