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Introduce a bill and get your name in the paper

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, March 14, 2005

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It is that time of year at the General Assembly building in Raleigh.

It is "Introduce a Bill and Get Your Name in the Paper" season.

Remember this: It is as easy to introduce bills, as it is hard to get them passed.

With a total of 170 legislators and a very tight leadership group in charge most of the time, most legislators quickly learn that, as individuals, they cannot get much done. They have to build alliances and earn seats at tables in the small conference rooms where most of the important decisions are made.

But there is one thing every legislator has the right to do by him or herself-introduce a bill. Legislators learn that if they want to get some attention back home, they can introduce a bill that would address some local grievances. Typically these bills would limit the power of municipalities to annex adjoining land without a vote of the people, or change the way the school board or county commission is selected, or correct some other local government problem. Sometimes a bill would make some activity a crime. And, very often, legislators introduce bills that would appropriate money for some favored local project or program.

Newspapers report the bill's introduction and give the legislator publicity. Sometimes, when we read about a bill's introduction, we get the idea that it is just about to become law.

Of course, it does not work that way. The introduction of a bill is just the first step in a long set of hurdles that an idea has to go through before it becomes law.

Only a very few bills make it.

Why is that?

A bill is first introduced in either the House or the Senate. In this example, let's say it is introduced in the House. First, it is sent to a committee. The chair of the committee decides when the committee will consider it. If the committee chair doesn't want to take the bill up, he or she can delay putting it on the committee's work calendar. If the chair is really opposed to the bill, it might not get considered at all.

Once the committee gets a chance to look at the bill, each committee member is likely to have ideas about how it can be improved. Often, these ideas will have to be incorporated in order to gain the full committee's approval. The changes may be so substantial that the introducer of the bill would not recognize it once the committee has finished its work.

The committee then sends the revised bill back for consideration by the entire House. But the Speaker and the Committee on Rules have the power to schedule when the House votes on the bill. If the bill is not a priority of the Speaker and his leadership team, it might have to wait for consideration-maybe forever.

Usually, it is many weeks, even months, before an introduced bill makes it way back to the full House for a vote. When (and if) it reaches the floor, every member will have the opportunity to offer amendments to weaken, strengthen, or substantially change the bill.

Once passed by the House, the bill is sent to the Senate, where the process begins all over again. It is assigned to a committee, where it is considered at a time set by the chair. Then, perhaps weeks later, it goes back to the floor of the Senate for debate and action.

Because the Senate will have made changes in the bill, its version will differ from the version passed by the House. Until both houses pass a bill with exactly the same language, it cannot become law.

So, after the Senate acts on the bill, the differences have to be resolved. If the Senate's changes are minor, the House can simply pass the Senate's version, saying, "We agree to your changes."

Often though, the Senate and the House have to work out their differences in a conference committee. This part of the process can take many days.

Along the way in this long process, most bills fall by the wayside. Most never become law.

Why am I subjecting you to this civics lesson?

It is only to warn you not to take too seriously the reports you are reading about "a bill in the legislature would.."

Remember this: It is as easy to introduce bills, as it is hard to get them passed.


D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which returns to the air on Sunday, April 3, at 5:00 p.m. with guest Bill Thompson, author of "Sweet Tea, Fried Chicken & Lazy Dogs."

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Introduce a bill and get your name in the paper

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