How a bill becomes a law Links: Legislative website: www.leg.wa.gov Schoolhouse rock “I’m just a bill” video: Schoolhouse Rock - I'm Just a Bill - YouTube Legislative hotline: 1-800-562-6000 Transcript In a previous episode, we were talking about the work of the legislature, and I briefly mentioned the process by which a bill turns into a law. I invited you to recall schoolhouse rock, because, frankly, that’s a pretty good basic outlining of the legislative process – it was written for US congress, but the process in the WA state legislature is much the same: A successful bill has togo to committee, then to the floor, then to the committee in the other chamber, then the floor of the other chamber, then to the governor’s desk. Along the way, it can be debated and amended. That’s the simple version of the story. As you may have guessed, the real story – the legislative process as it is actually practiced- is a bit more complicated. It’s a perilous journey. Most won’t make it. Along the way, there are untold obstacles and nearly impossible odds.There’s also some mystery, and even a big plot twist. As I said, most bills will die along the journey. Only about 1 in 5 actually get to the governor’s desk. The process is actually designed to make it hard to pass a bill. There are a lot of little steps that a bill has to go through, and some bills will die at every single step. Bills die because they don’t have majority support, or because they’re too expensive, or because there just isn’t enough time. Session is limited, and there are a series of deadlines built into the calendar, called cutoffs. If a bill isn’t far enough along in the process before cutoff, then the bill dies. So, what does the process actually look like? Each bill has to go through the same process: Voted out of committee, voted off the floor, then the same steps in the opposite house. Voted out of committee, voted off the floor. Then signed by the governor. That’s 5 basic steps. If a bill raises or spends money, it has to go through a fiscal committee as well. So... seven basic steps: Policy committee, fiscal committee, floor, then to the opposite house, then signed by the governor. But each of those steps has little steps within it. To be voted out of committee, a bill must first have a public hearing. Plenty of bills never get scheduled for a public hearing in their first committee. After a public hearing, the bill must be voted out of committee. We call voting a bill out of committee “exec’ing” a bill, in reference to “executive sessions,” which is the name for the kind of committee meeting where they vote on bills. Plenty of bills never get voted out of committee, either because they don’t have enough votes from committee members, the committee chair doesn’t want to move the bill, or they just run out of time on the schedule. But bills have to be out of their policy committee by the first cutoff (called “policy cutoff”), or they’re dead. Then they have to be scheduled for a public hearing in their fiscal committee. Plenty of bills get through their policy committee, only to never be heard in a fiscal committee. And again, even with a hearing in their fiscal committee, plenty of bills that get heard in their fiscal committee never get voted out of their fiscal committee – for lack of support, lack of time, or because they’re too expensive, which is something fiscal committees care about in a way that policy committees don’t. And if a bill doesn’t get voted out of committee by the second cutoff date, what’s called “fiscal cutoff,” then the bill is dead. Then on to the floor, right? Well... Before they get to the floor, bills have to go through the Rules committee. The Rules committee isn’t like any other committee. The Rules committee is made up of leadership from both party caucuses. This committee gets to decide what bills can actually get to the floor to be scheduled for a floor vote. It’s an intentional bottleneck, a place where party leadership can hold bills that they don’t like. It feels like a dark and mysterious place. Some bills just go in and are lost forever. But if a bill makes it out of Rules, that still doesn’t mean it’s going to get a floor vote. Because the same constraints apply. Lots of bills to be considered, but limited time and money. And debates on the floor can be much longer than debates in committee. Floor debates on controversial bills can go on late into the night or even into the next morning. One tool that the minority party has to fight against bills they don’t like is to propose a bunch of amendments. Each amendment must be debated, which slows the process down, forcing the majority party to abandon some of their other bills. And the third cutoff date is called “floor cutoff” or “house of origin cutoff”. Bills must be voted off the floor of their house of origin by that deadline, or they’re dead. So instead of three steps in each chamber – policy committee, fiscal committee, floor – it's more like six: public hearing in the policy committee, executive session in the policy committee, public hearing in the fiscal committee, executive session in the fiscal committee, then Rules, then a floor vote. And bills die at each step. Once a bill has gotten off the floor and go to the opposite house, however, the journey gets a bit easier. Because now there are a lot fewer bills, and the bills that have survived have some momentum. It’s a lot easier to convince a Senator to vote for a bill if it passed with a big, bipartisan majority in the House. Bills that survive this long have also been amended. Pieces get taken out, added, watered down. Some amendments are aimed at improving the underlying legislation, some are aimed at just increasing political support for the bill so it will pass. As session goes along, you’ll see proposed statewide programs become pilot projects, exemptions get added, “shall” language gets changed to “may” language, etc. But still, there are the same three cutoff deadlines in the opposite house as there were before: Policy cutoff, fiscal cutoff, and floor cutoff. And at every stage, some bills will die. I have been at the Capitol on the afternoon of opposite house floor cutoff (always a Friday at 5pm), racing around talking to lawmakers, desperately trying (and ultimately failing) to get a bill scheduled for a vote before 5pm cutoff. We’d made it through all those steps, only to die at literally the last minute. If a bill gets amended in its opposite house, then it has to go back to the floor of its house of origin. The house of origin can hold a vote to accept the new form of the bill, or they can insist on their version, and send it back. Ultimately, bills that bounce back and forth like this will go to something called a conference committee, a group of members of both chambers and both parties, who will reach a compromise version of the bill. If they don’t come to agreement, then, you guessed it... the bill dies. So after final cutoff, for the last week or two of session, the legislature is only considering three kinds of bills: bills that need to go through the conference committee process; the budgets; and bills necessary to implement the budgets. And here’s the plot twist I promised. Bills that are considered necessary to implement the budget (abbreviated to NTIB) are not subject to any of the cutoff deadlines. They still have to go through committees, but they can be introduced and passed as late as the last week of session. What kind of bills are necessary to implement the budget? Really, any bill that spends or raises money could be considered NTIB. But only a few bills each year will get this special treatment and race through the process at the end. Usually these bills are either urgent responses to something that has come up during session, or new compromises on issues that have been moving through session already. OK, we’re almost at the end. Once both chambers have voted on the same version of a bill, it can go to the governor’s desk. Most bills that make it this far will be signed by the governor. But bills can still die here: the governor can veto a bill, or veto just certain sections of a bill. The legislature can override a veto with a supermajority vote, but that’s rare. Most bills that make it to the governor’s desk will become law. Whew! You can see why most bills die along the journey. It’s hard to pass a bill. That's by design. It’s a wonder that any bills pass at all. So... why does a bill pass? What makes the difference between a bill that dies and a bill that survives? In a scramble for limited resources (like the time and attention of the legislature), what makes the legislature prioritize one bill over another? Political pressure. A bill that the public doesn’t care about isn’t going to make it as far. In 2020, just before the pandemic, the legislature passed HB 1888, a bill to protect public employee birthdates from disclosure. A similar version of that bill had died two years before. At the beginning of the 2020 session, we were a little skeptical about whether we could get the bill through. But public employees, including WPEA members, reached out to lawmakers in huge numbers. Union members called, emailed, sent in postcards, and testified in committee. Every lawmaker we talked to told us that they had heard from their constituents in support of the bill. In the end, the bill passed with huge bipartisan majorities. The final vote was 36 to 10 in the Senate, 91 to 5 in the House. That could not have happened without so many public employees sending a clear message to the legislature. You can send a clear message to the legislature in support of our state employee contracts, by calling the legislative hotline at 1-800-562-6000 and tell them to fully fund state employee contracts, including 100% funding for classified staff at our community and technical colleges.