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Building a Bill in Congress

As soon as you start working with the United States Congress, you begin hearing about this bill or that bill. It's as if someone named Bill is everywhere in Washington. In the congressional context, a bill is simply a proposal, an idea, that's written up in legislation and presented to the Congress.

Starting with an idea

It all starts with an idea, a simple concept. You take that idea to your representative or senator because you see a need, you have a cause, and you want it to become a law.

Remember that only members of Congress can propose resolutions that are considered by the entire body. Your task comes down to convincing a member to actually want to introduce your idea.

Anyone can write up, or draft a bill, but only a member of Congress can introduce it. However, the more work that you do for members, the easier it is for them to work on your behalf. When you have a bill that you want Congress to consider, writing it up in legal language and presenting it to your representative or senator as a draft is a good idea. Lobbyists routinely draft legislative proposals.

Figuring out how to write a bill is easy. Just look up an existing bill on the congressional Web site and follow that format to compose your proposal. Although your representative may make a few changes, he and the staff won't have to do as much work creating the bill by themselves.

Looking at the types of legislation

Several kinds of bills can be introduced and each one has a special designation.

Bill

The bill is the most common form of legislation. It's an idea, a proposal, and in the House it receives the designation H.R. for House of Representatives (not House Resolution as many people think). In the Senate it gets S. for Senate. A bill becomes law when it's approved by both the House and Senate and reaches the president's desk for signature. After it's signed by the president, it's no longer called a bill, but becomes an "Act."

Resolution

A resolution is much the same as a bill, except that it's usually concerned with the operation of the House or Senate. In other words, it's about something that concerns only the institution and doesn't need to be signed by the president. In the House, such a resolution is designated H. Res. and gets a number, and in the Senate, it becomes S. Res.

Joint resolution

A joint resolution is virtually identical to a bill. Contrary to what one would expect given the name, it can be proposed in either the House or the Senate and it goes through the same procedures as a bill and must be signed into law by the president.

One slight difference between a bill and a joint resolution is that a joint resolution frequently has a preamble, a paragraph explaining the justification for the bill with all the "Whereas" resolving clauses that are a feature of legislative language. Joint resolutions are also used to amend bills already under consideration. A joint resolution gets the designation H.J.Res. in the House and S.J.Res. in the Senate.

The only time a joint resolution differs in its procedure for consideration is when it's an amendment to the Constitution. Then it has to be approved by two-thirds of both houses to pass, and it's also sent to the states for ratification rather than being signed (or not) by the president.

Concurrent resolutions

A concurrent resolution can be introduced in either house and doesn't go to the president for signature. It isn't a bill and doesn't create any law. Usually, concurrent resolutions are used to express facts, principles, and opinions of the two houses. After being passed by both houses, concurrent resolutions are transmitted to the U.S. archivist rather than the president. In the House, they are designated H.Con.Res. and in the Senate, S.Con.Res.

Many people dismiss concurrent resolutions as having no teeth because a "sense of resolution" has no power behind it. It's merely an expression of opinion and usually reflects the lowest common denominator: For example, "It is the sense of the House and Senate that all Americans should support Motherhood and Apple Pie."

One example in the 107th Congress was S. Con.Res. 44, resolving that, in light of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the House and Senate paid tribute to those who died and those who survived the attack. This resolution didn't enact a law, but it expressed a congressional sentiment.

However, dismissing the role that concurrent resolutions can play would be a mistake, especially as part of an overall lobbying campaign. When effectively used to show the sentiments of the Congress where a particular cause or measure is concerned, concurrent resolutions can lead to real legislation, can warn opponents of the strength behind a measure, and can encourage supporters inside and outside Congress.

Private bills

While many people look to Congress for help with personal problems, sometimes such assistance must be approved by the entire Congress in the form of a bill. Your representative or lawyer can tell you whether that will be the case with any proposal you may make.

The use of private bills has declined considerably. For example, in the 96th Congress (from 1979-1981), 123 private bills were passed, but by the 104th Congress (from 1995-1997), the number had dropped to only 4.

Members are leery of private bills because they have the potential for creating trouble for the member if it turns out that the beneficiary doesn't have the cleanest record.

In the past, private bills were mostly used to assist people who had a grievance or demand on the executive branch. Moreover, the need for them has declined because today there are more ways to appeal to executive agencies than there were in the past.

Nonetheless, private bills are an option that usually fall into the following categories and go to the following House committees:

  • Armed services decorations issues are handled by the National Security Committee.
  • Civil service issues go to the Government Reform and Oversight Committee.
  • Claims against the government. Domestic claims go to the Judiciary Committee; foreign claims go to the International Relations Committee.
  • Immigration issues (for example, naturalization, residency status, and visa classification) go to the Judiciary Committee.
  • Medical issues (for example, Food and Drug Administration approvals and health maintenance organization enrollment requirements) go to the Commerce Committee.
  • Patents and copyright questions go to the Judiciary Committee.
  • Public land issues (for example, sales, claims, exchanges, and mineral leases) go to the Resources Committee.
  • Taxation issues (for example, income tax liabilities and tariff exemptions) go to the Ways and Means Committee.
  • Vessel documentation issues go to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
  • Veterans' benefit issues go to the Veterans' Affairs Committee.

Private bills almost always are introduced only in the House since they deal with individuals and the House is the direct representative of the people (as opposed to the Senate, which represents states). If they get through subcommittee and committee consideration, they then move to the floor where all the private bills are considered together on the first and third Tuesdays of each month (although the House can decide to call them up at any other time when everyone agrees).

Private bills usually go sailing through and routinely are approved by a voice vote. However, whenever two members object to a private bill, it goes back to the committee for reconsideration or is held for further consideration until the next batch of private bills comes up.

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