I'm Just a Bill: How a Bill Becomes a Law - BodyShop Business

I’m Just a Bill: How a Bill Becomes a Law

Remember the Saturday morning "School House Rock" clip about how a bill becomes a law? Consider this article the adult version, in which you'll learn how the legislative process works and how the government's actions affect your shop.

Every month, BodyShop Business dedicates a portion of Industry Update to legislation that, if enacted, will affect the collision industry. This information is helpful because it lets you know what your government is doing for – or to – your business. And when it comes to government and legislation, ignorance isn’t bliss.

Though you’re given a short synopsis each month on what each bill is about, you may be left with some questions about the proposed legislation, such as: Where did the bill come from? What’s going to happen to the bill next? Who determines how the bill will proceed? These are all valid questions, and they all have answers. Unfortunately, many of those answers would be too long to fit in the space provided under any monthly legislative update. Which is where this article comes in.

Many people complain that the legislative process is cumbersome and full of gridlock. They miss the fact that the founding fathers of our great nation made it that way on purpose, with the intention that only the best ideas would become law. In fact, only about 1 to 2 percent of all bills introduced each year at the federal level ever make it all the way through the legislative process and are signed into law. But to understand why, you need to first understand the legislative process.

Phase 1
The first step in the legislative process is to have an idea. For the sake of this article, let’s say your idea is a law that would make it illegal for repair shops to use non-OEM parts for the repair of a vehicle that’s five years old or newer. Non-OEM parts could be used on vehicles older than five years, but the repair shop would be required to get the consent of the owner before proceeding.

Once you’ve got your idea, what’s next? Take your idea to a legislator. Since we’re only dealing with the federal legislative process, let’s say you take your idea to your congressman, Rep. John Doe, a Republican who’s been representing your district for about 10 years. Rep. Doe sits on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, where he’s next in line to become chairman of a subcommittee after the next election. (That information is important, as you’ll see later.) You pitch your idea to Rep. Doe, who thinks your idea is a good one and tells you he’ll introduce a bill based on your idea.

Next, Rep. Doe meets with his staff to better formulate the specifics of what will be included in the bill. After determining what’s to be included, the staff begins discussions with Legislative Counsel, a group of government-employed legal experts, to create a draft of the bill. A lot of time and effort are put into drafting the bill because the proper language for a bill is a must. One wrong word can change the whole meaning and sink a piece of legislation. The review and drafting between Legislative Counsel and staff can go back and forth several times until everyone agrees that the language of the draft states correctly and completely what the bill will do.

So now the idea has been put into bill format with all of its complex legal jargon. Think it’s ready to be introduced? Technically yes, but if Rep. Doe ever wants to see that bill become law, he must drum up support for it.

First, the congressman seeks out the support of an association. Let’s say the Collision Reform Association (CRA) – a fictional association, in case you were wondering – loves the bill and promises to do what it can to see it become law. Having an association on board makes gathering support from other members of Congress much easier. In the meantime, a “Dear Colleague” letter from Rep. Doe is sent to other members of the House of Representatives seeking their support.

After some hard work drumming up support for Rep. Doe’s bill by CRA and the congressman’s staff, 50 members of Congress want to co-sponsor the bill when Rep. Doe introduces it. Co-sponsoring a bill means having legislators’ names added to the bill as supporters.

Finally, the bill is ready to be introduced. Rep. Doe takes his final version of the bill, along with the list of co-sponsors, down to the floor of the House of Representatives chamber. He puts the bill on the bin where other bills introduced that day have been laid. Rep. Doe’s bill has now been introduced.

Phase 2
The next step in the legislative process is for the bill to be assigned a number. For the most part, whatever number is next in line will be assigned to that bill. For example, if the last bill that was introduced was H.R. 56, the next bill will receive the number H.R. 57. (H.R. stands for the House of Representatives where the bill was introduced.) For this article, we’ll assign the number H.R. 5000 to our non-OEM parts law.

The bill is then assigned to its respective committee for review. The House of Representatives consists of 19 different committees, each with jurisdiction over certain issues. For example, the Agriculture Committee handles agriculture issues, and the Ways and Means Committee handles tax policy and health care. Our bill would likely be assigned to the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over commerce issues.

Since Rep. Doe has been on the Energy and Commerce Committee for 10 years, he has a warm relationship with the committee chairman. After speaking with Rep. Doe about the bill, the chairman agrees to move the bill forward. The bill then gets assigned to a subcommittee for consideration.

Subcommittees, like full committee, also have jurisdiction over specific issues. In this case, because non-OEM parts bill H.R. 5000 deals with the commerce of crash parts and, in part, the safety of consumers, it gets sent to the Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Fortunately, Rep. Doe is the second-most senior Republican member of the committee. (Remember, he’s next in line to become subcommittee chairman.) Rep. Doe has worked diligently with the chairman of the subcommittee before. The two talk and Rep. Doe asks to have hearings on H.R. 5000. The subcommittee chairman agrees, and hearings are scheduled for the bill. A hearing for a bill is essentially a fact-finding and gathering meeting of a committee or subcommittee. It allows supporters and opponents to bring in “experts” who testify about the bill – like whether or not the bill will do what it says, among other things.

As the subcommittee holds hearings on the bill, Rep. Doe and CRA, our national collision repair association, have been trying to garner more support for the bill by way of co-sponsors. They’ve been somewhat successful and now have a total of 75 co-sponsors.

Phase 3
The next step in the process is to have a mark-up session at the subcommittee level, which allows members of the subcommittee to “mark” the bill. In other words, lines of text can be stricken, amendments can be added or the bill can be substituted for another. If a substitution is made by the opposition, it essentially kills the bill. Fortunately for H.R. 5000, Rep. Doe gathered enough co-sponsors from the subcommittee to ensure that no major changes would happen during the mark-up.

When the subcommittee finishes marking-up a bill, members vote on it. If the majority of the members vote favorably on the bill, it gets sent back to the full committee for consideration. If they vote against the bill, it dies.

With a favorable majority vote, H.R. 5000 is sent back to the full committee. Rep. Doe has managed to garner 100 co-sponsors to the bill by now, including the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. It doesn’t take much for Rep. Doe to convince the chairman to schedule more hearings on the bill and then a full committee mark-up.

At the end of those proceedings, the committee votes on H.R. 5000. Since Rep. Doe has gathered enough support from colleagues on the committee, the bill is voted favorably out of committee.

At this point, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee instructs the committee staff to prepare a report on the bill. The report describes the intent and scope of the legislation, its impact on existing laws and programs, the position of the executive branch and views of dissenting members.

After the report is finished, it and the bill are placed on the legislative calendar, which lists bills that are ready for consideration. The speaker of the house and the house majority leader determine if, when and in what order bills are considered on the floor of the chamber. By now Rep. Doe has gained support of his bill from both the speaker and the majority leader. They inform Rep. Doe that H.R. 5000 will be brought to the floor soon.

In the meantime, the House Rules Committee determines what rules or procedures will govern the debate of the bill. The rules will determine the conditions, amount of time allocated for debate and number of amendments, if any, that are allowed to be introduced on the floor during consideration of the bill.

Going into the floor debate, Rep. Doe and CRA have managed to gather the support of 150 members of Congress. That’s still far short of the number necessary to pass the bill. But this doesn’t mean the rest oppose it; many are still undecided. (A bill needs at least 218 of 435 possible votes.)

After the debate on the bill proceeds for the allotted time, the opposing members ask for a vote on a motion to “recommit with instructions.” This is the opposition’s last hope that the bill will fail. Making a motion to recommit with instructions is asking that the bill be sent back to the committee with instructions from the floor debate on what to do or how to change the bill. For all intense purposes, it kills the bill.

Rep. Doe’s non-OEM parts bill survives the motion and is now ready to be voted on. The House votes on the bill and passes it.

The bill has made it through one chamber and is now referred to the other chamber: the Senate. The Senate follows a similar route for its legislation. Sending a bill to committee, subcommittee and then to the floor for action. However, the Senate has no rules committee, relying instead on the majority leader to schedule its bills. The chamber may approve the bill as received, reject it, ignore it or change it. For our purposes, we’ll say the majority leader of the Senate, now under Democratic control, supports the bill and actively pushes the bill forward, culminating with its passage in the Senate.

A victory at last? Not yet. Though the bill passed both the House and the Senate, it received more opposition in the Senate. For the bill to pass, a deal was struck to make changes to the legislation. And when the actions of one chamber significantly change a bill, a conference committee is formed to reconcile the differences. If the conferees are unable to reach an agreement, the bill dies. If an agreement is reached, a conference report is prepared describing the committees’ recommendations for changes. Both the House and the Senate must approve of the report. In this example, both chambers agree with the conference committee’s changes.

Phase 4
After the bill has been approved in identical form by both chambers, it’s sent to the president. If the president approves of the legislation, he signs it into law. If the president opposes the bill, he can veto it. However, Congress can override a presidential veto by vote of two-thirds majority of both the Senate and the House; the bill then becomes law. If the president takes no action for 10 days while Congress is in session, the bill automatically becomes law. If the president takes no action after Congress has adjourned its second session, it’s considered a “pocket veto” and the legislation dies.

Thankfully, Rep. Doe was a strong supporter of the president when he ran for office and has worked with him on prior legislation. This allows Rep. Doe to convince the president that H.R. 5000 is worthy of becoming law. The president agrees and hosts a public signing of the bill into law in the Rose Garden. Rep. Doe, other supporters of the bill and you (Rep. Doe thought it would be great to have the originator of the idea there) are all standing in the Rose Garden for the signing. You get to meet the president, and all is well in the world.

Behind the Hill
You’re probably saying, “Wow, I didn’t know all that went into making a bill a law.” You probably also noticed that Rep. Doe, in our example, had a good relationship with several important people: the committee chairman, the subcommittee chairman, the speaker of the house, the house majority leader, the senate majority leader and the president. One of the most important things to learn about Congress is that members who have good relationships with other members can accomplish a lot. If a congressman cares deeply about a piece of legislation, he’ll work every angle he can to see his bill move closer to becoming law. That often means making deals offering support for other members’ bills in exchange for their support of your bill.

You should’ve also noticed that I made Rep. Doe a Republican. That’s important because the party in power in either chamber can control the agenda of what bills will be considered. But being a member of the majority party in one chamber isn’t enough to ensure a bill becomes law. It’s almost vital for a legislator to have some bi-partisan support of legislation in both chambers. You’ll notice in our example, Rep. Doe received the support of the senate majority leader, a Democrat. Now more than ever, with Congress so closely divided, it’s important for legislators to have good relationships with members of both parties.

Government Insider
Now that you have a better understanding of the process, you’ll also better understand how the government’s actions affect the collision industry. Want to learn even more about government and legislation? The Internet has made keeping track of legislation easier, and new technology has made your legislators more accessible. Also, if you’re a member of an association, information about legislation, regulations and other government activity is only a phone call or e-mail away.

If all of this has still somehow left you confused about how a bill becomes law, I’d advise you to rent the old “School House Rock” video. It may seem elementary, but the song’s catchy enough to keep anyone’s attention. You know the one: “I’m just a bill. Yes, I’m only a bill. And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill … ”

Writer Matthew Best is head of the Atlantic Firm, a full-service government affairs firm in Carlisle, Pa., that specializes in tracking automotive-related issues, legislation and regulation for clients. He can be reached at (717) 385-2188 or [email protected].

How a Bill Becomes Law


1. Introduction
A bill is introduced in the House or Senate and then sent to the respective committee.

2. Committee action
Much of the work on legislation is done in committees and subcommittees. Hearings are held, a bill can be revised and recommendation to pass or kill a bill is made.

3. Floor action
Before any debate takes place in the House, the House Rules Committee determines the rules for debate. In the Senate, the majority leader sets rules for floor action. A bill is debated on the floor, amendments are proposed and then a bill is voted on by the full House or Senate.

4. Conference action
If the actions of one chamber significantly change a bill, a conference committee is formed to reconcile the differences. If the conferees are unable to reach an agreement, the bill dies. If agreement is reached, a conference report is prepared describing the committee’s changes and must be approved by both the House and Senate.

5. Executive action
If the president signs a bill, it becomes law. If the president vetoes a bill, Congress can override the veto by vote of two-thirds majority of both the House and Senate.

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