Want to Pass a Bill? Good Luck.
by Melissa Broome
It’s been almost seven years since I first interviewed for the position of Senior Policy Advocate at JOTF and – as embarrassing as this is to admit – I spent the night before the interview frantically researching how a bill becomes a law. Memories of my high school government course were foggy and I was worried that I would get asked. Thank goodness I didn’t. No textbook or webpage could ever fully encompass the grueling, gut-wrenching, heart-palpitating, roller-coaster-ride of a process otherwise known as passing a bill.
Fast forward to 2012 and countless JOTF priorities later and I could recite this stuff in my sleep. First things first, you need a sponsor. Not just any sponsor but a legislative champion who sits on the relevant committee and is ready to make your issue a priority.
After the bill is officially introduced and assigned a number, it will be given a hearing date. The hearing obviously gives you the chance to make the case for why a new law is needed but it also gives you an opportunity to hear the other side. Any seasoned lobbyist will tell you that the true work begins immediately after the hearing since this is when the countdown to life or death begins. Consequently, any issues raised during the hearing need to be addressed quickly before seeds of doubt have a chance to grow.
The first post-hearing hurdle is the committee vote. Without a favorable committee report, the bill dies. The first year that we tried to pass legislation to extend unemployment insurance benefits to part-time workers, the bill failed in committee by one vote when a supportive delegate had stepped out of the room. It’s not always glamorous but part of the job is getting the bill brought up for a vote and making sure it happens at the right time.
If you’re lucky enough to get the bill out of committee, it will then move to the floor where it must pass “second reader.” Second reader is nerve-wracking as this is when the full House or Senate publicly debates the bill for the first time. This is also when amendments to the bill can be added, and sometimes these come from unlikely sources. Debate can move to a vote very quickly.
If the bill passes second reader, the next step is third reader, which is essentially the final vote of the full chamber, either all 141 members of the House or all 47 members of the Senate.
Once you’ve passed third reader you can celebrate the fact that you’ve completely moved your bill through one chamber. Be careful, however, not to spend too much time with the champagne since you now to have to repeat the entire process all over again on the opposite side. It’s true. After getting your bill through one chamber, it then has to cross over to the other where it must be introduced, assigned a hearing, receive a favorable committee report, and then pass second and third reader on the floor. If you manage to achieve all of these steps without having amendments tacked on, your bill will officially be declared passed and headed for the Governor’s desk.
Unfortunately, in many cases, the opposite chamber likes to put their own stamp on the bill and amendments inevitably get added. If the bill is at all modified, it then has to go back to the original chamber where the full body must decide whether or not to concur with the opposite chamber’s version. In most cases, the chamber of origin votes not to concur and the bill then gets assigned to a conference committee.
A conference committee consists of six individuals: three delegates and three senators. The group must come up with a compromise that four of the six members are willing to sign off on. Once this agreement is reached, the conference committee report is taken back to the full House and Senate chamber where it must be voted on one last time.
The most nauseating hours of my career occurred in 2008 on Sine Die (last day of session) as I sat in the Senate gallery waiting for the flexible leave conference committee report to come back to the floor for final approval. The Flexible Leave Act proposed that workers be able to use their sick leave to care for a child, spouse or parent. Advocates had worked for more than two years to get to this point and there were less than 30 minutes to go before the clock would strike midnight and the confetti would fall. As the senators debated whether Smith Island Cake should be named the official state dessert, I thought I was going to jump out of my skin. Thankfully, our conference committee report was eventually called and the Flexible Leave Act passed with about 13 minutes to spare.
It is only after the conference committee report receives a favorable vote from both the House and Senate that a bill is officially declared passed. It then moves to the Governor’s desk where it will be signed into law… unless he decides to veto it.
In short, passing a bill in 90 short days is extremely hard work. There are countless steps along the way where a bill can take an unexpected turn or die completely. It’s not uncommon for it to take multiple years before any piece of meaningful legislation makes it through the process. Because of this, it’s important to celebrate each small victory and know that every hurdle passed along the way is significant.
For more information on Maryland’s legislative process, contact JOTF at 410-234-8040.