A drawing of an anthropomorphized bill sitting on the Capitol steps.

The Legislative Process Demystified: How an Idea Becomes a Law

From inception to publication in the statute books.

We usually understand how the law impacts us on a daily basis, both as a people and as individuals. But how do those laws come to be? This guide explains who comes up with the laws, who writes them, who changes them, and who puts them into effect.

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Who thinks up our laws?

We all know the result of legislation being passed, and some of us have an idea of its life cycle. (Think Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill…”) But there are more people involved than just the legislative bodies and the voters. The idea for a piece of legislation (called a “bill draft” in its earliest stages) usually comes from the mind of a legislator (your elected representatives and senators). This is true at the state and federal level, and the nature of these early pieces of legislation depends heavily on the elected official that thinks them up. Common sense, right? A Democrat will come up with a bill to fund public education, a Republican will come up with one to take that funding away. Civics 101!

However, in some cases, advocacy groups pipe up and offer specific suggestions to lawmakers to further their own cause. An example of this is the Christian hate group Alliance Defending Freedom, which actively works to ban laws protecting bodily autonomy, especially the right to abortion, and strip LGBTQIA+ individuals of rights and protections under the law. Since larger advocacy groups can work at a national level, they have a better chance of spreading their rhetoric across state lines, which explains the peculiar similarities between anti-trans and anti-abortion legislation between states. Important to note, however, is the existence of many types of advocacy groups, including those in direct opposition to the ADF’s message. For more information on how you can support the protection of individual civil liberties, check out the Human Rights Campaign.

Who pens our laws?

Once a legislator thinks up a bill, they work with the attorneys in the Revisor of Statutes Office (often called “Assistant Revisors”). There’s a Revisor’s Office (or its equivalent) in every state legislature. Legislators themselves almost never pen the bills they propose, but they do workshop the bill drafts written by the Assistant Revisors in committee meetings.

Committee meetings: Who alters the laws?

You probably heard about House and Senate committees in civics class. There’s a committee for all the main issues a state needs to address: agriculture, transportation, child welfare, public health, budget, elections, natural resources, commerce, utilities, and the list goes on. Of these, there are joint committees and standing committees.

Joint committees are made up of members of both houses of Congress (meaning there are representatives and senators sitting in). Standing committees are made up exclusively of members of one chamber of Congress or the other. There is some overlap in the matter of standing committees, even though they’re split up. For example, some states have a Senate standing committee on “agriculture” and a House standing committee on “agriculture and natural resources.”

These committees are made up of a handful of legislators. Not every legislator serves on every single committee (nothing would get done if that were the case, too many cooks, etc.). Instead, each committee is made up of a small group of legislators and one chairperson (also a legislator), who is responsible for overseeing each committee meeting.

When the legislature is not in session, there are “interim committees,” which are exactly what they sound like. There are far fewer interim committees than there are during session, but they still convene outside the regular session to discuss various topics and propose changes to existing laws.

What do they talk about?

So what goes down in committee meetings once a bill draft is ready to workshop? Well, a lot of bills that go through committees are actually pre-existing laws that just need revision. The legislator that requested the bill draft or the revision presents it to the committee, and discussion ensues.

Present at each committee meeting are members of the Legislative Research Department as well as the Assistant Revisor who penned the bill draft. While the discussion proceeds, members of the Research Department are on standby to provide context or answer questions about pre-existing laws or data to help clarify what’s being discussed. The Assistant Revisor is there to take note of the committee’s discussion and answer questions about the bill draft. Once the meeting adjourns, the Assistant Revisor makes changes to the bill draft based on what the committee agreed upon in the meeting.

Bills that committee members can’t agree on by the end of a legislative session “die in committee,” and are basically doomed to a purgatory of technically existing, but with no purpose or official significance. Some bills that die in committee can be revisited or brought back to life in future legislative sessions, but most of the time a bill that dies in committee stays there permanently. Sometimes, dead’s better.

Then what?

Then the process starts over. The new version of the bill draft is presented at the next committee meeting, the legislators ask questions and propose new changes, and the Assistant Revisor makes the next round of changes the committee members agree upon. This process repeats until no committee members have any changes to propose. At that point, the bill draft is ready to be voted on on the House or Senate floor. Pending that vote, the bill will either go to the desk of the governor to be signed or will “die on the floor” if it does not receive enough votes.

If the governor signs the bill, it becomes law. If the governor vetoes it, the Senate and the House have the chance to override that veto through a majority vote.

If the governor does nothing when the bill comes across their desk, the bill becomes law without their signature. If the governor vetoes the bill and the Senate and House do not vote to override the veto, the bill dies.

Are there special cases?

Thank you for asking! Yes, there are some extraordinary circumstances that can impact the lifecycle of a law. One example is if a legislature goes into something called a “special session,” which is a legislative session that occurs outside the set timeframe of a normal legislative session. The reason for a special session is usually when one or both of the houses cannot come to an agreement on something important (usually budget items). Special sessions can last as long as it takes to settle the issue, and can happen immediately after the normal legislative session or at any time throughout the year during non-session times.

The length of a legislative session varies by state, sometimes even changing based on whether the year is odd or even. The term “session” also has a dual meaning: A “session” can refer to the annual meeting of a state legislature, but it can also refer to the two annual sessions in a row that also comprise a session.

Confused? I don’t blame you. Basically, a session is a number of days when the legislature meets each year and is the combined number of days the legislature meets over a two-year span. Good thing our government is user-friendly and intuitive.

(featured image: ABC)


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Scout
Scout (she/her/hers) is a freelance news writer for The Mary Sue. When not scrolling Twitter, she's thinking about scrolling Twitter. She likes short walks on the beach, glitter pens, and burnt coffee. She does not read the comments.