How A Bill Became Law

The best scene in the Rodney Dangerfield classic Back to School was Dangerfield’s first day in business class where the professor outlined how a factory is constructed…in theory.

Taking issue with the “textbook” explanation, Dangerfield’s character, a successful Big & Tall haberdasher, laid out how it works in reality, warts and all.

Now most of us are familiar with the old stick figure sketches that appear in high school civics books showing how a bill becomes a law.

Several weeks ago I witnessed, or didn’t witness on one day in particular, how a certain bill became a law. And what happened didn’t look anything like the standard flow chart nor did it resemble the process as described in the “I’m Just a Bill” musical short from ABC’s School House Rock.

Though it would have been a hell of a lot more enjoyable if Jack Sheldon had provided the lyrics in his signature raspy voice.

Below is a point-by-point chronology how House Bill 509 was conceptualized, proposed, introduced, processed, almost aborted, rescued, advanced and finally made into law. Viewer discretion advised.

1) Louisiana Republican State Central Committee passes resolution in early 2011 calling for moving the Louisiana Presidential Primary to March to avoid losing half of the state’s delegates to the 2012 Republican National Convention.

2) As the filing deadline ticked down and furiously dialing away on my cell phone, I finally found a legislator who had a “vacancy” and was willing to sponsor the bill. During a fiscal session legislators have a limit on the number of non-fiscal, non-local bills they are allowed to introduce.

3) Bill language is drawn up and then prefiled in the House of Representatives.

4) Bill is then assigned to House and Governmental Affairs for consideration.

5) Bill goes to purgatory for a few weeks as I work to get the Louisiana Democrats on board. Over a dozen calls are placed to their officials and leaders in the hope of putting together the same coalition that passed the previous primary date change five years ago.

6) Finally someone with the state Democratic Party fields a phone call and punts to the matter to the Louisiana Democratic State Central Committee, which meets infrequently. The clock continues to tick on the session as the bill has not yet left committee.

7) Word gets out that the Louisiana Democratic State Central Committee is not expected to meet due to concerns about the rising Mississippi River. It becomes apparent that the Democrats have been stalling for weeks and have no intention to cooperate. With a Republican majority in both houses, the decision is made to have the bill heard before time runs out.

8) On the same day I am flying out of town, the bill is heard before House and Governmental Affairs. The chairman kindly allows for the bill to be considered first so I can then proceed directly to the airport. Minor technical amendments are added and the bill passes committee without exception.

9) The bill is reported from committee and then sent to a third reading and placed on the calendar with debate scheduled for a week later.

10) The bill passes 84-0 on the House floor.

11) Five days later the bill is sent over to the Senate, given two readings and then sent to the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee.

12) Re-enters purgatory for two and a half weeks.

13) Bill is to be considered on the last scheduled Senate and Governmental Affairs meeting to vote on legislation. Joining the presidential primary bill that day are measures calling for the passage of a constitutional amendment regarding the federal debt and for placing a monument of the Ten Commandments on the State Capitol grounds. As the presidential primary bill is to be heard after these high-profile measures and that three of the legislature’s most partisan Democrats serve on the committee, I get a bad feeling how things are going to turn out. Witness card turned in before the meeting commences.

14) After much acrimonious debate on the aforementioned bills, the bill is called up for a hearing several hours later. The bill’s sponsor occupies one of the three seats at the testimony table with representatives of the Secretary of State’s office sitting in the other two. I am stuck sitting behind them.

15) After a line of questions posed by a senator who is favorable to the bill is completed, Democratic senator moves to have the bill deferred. By a 6-1 vote (four Democrats joined by two Republicans on a committee with a 5-4 GOP majority), the bill is deferred. No explanation is given. My witness card was apparently lost.

16) After speaking with one of the senators I am allowed to hurriedly address the committee after the fact. The bill is not reconsidered effectively killing it being so late in the session. Democratic opponent to the measure pipes up that it is merely deferred and not dead.

17) Bill sponsor claims he will tack the language on to another piece of legislation, but that bill is defeated. Options become limited.

18) While driving to New Orleans I start counting the days needed for a bill to get out of committee with time to make it back over to the house for concurrence (as another set of amendments are brought forth by the Secretary of State’s office AFTER the bill left the House of Representatives). Last shot would be a rehearing in committee.

19) Call is placed to a state senator on the floor who then meets with the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee chairman and requests that another hearing be held in light of the nature the bill was dismissed and the prospect of a $6,000,000 election being held of no value as the state GOP declared they would boycott the primary if it is not moved. A meeting is rescheduled only hours after the bill was deferred.

20) Emails go out to Republican activists from GOP leaders around the state to the Republican senators who voted against the measure in committee asking that they reconsider the vote. TEA Party activists join in as well.

21) Less than 40 hours later with all GOP members of the Senate and Governmental Affairs present, the presidential primary bill leaves the committee on a straight party line 5-4 vote. Hopefully the Republican Party and delegation has learned a valuable lesson on having so many partisan Democrats on a committee that handles reapportionment and other important political matters.

22) Bill is reported out of committee on Sunday.

23) On Monday, the last day to get House bills out of the Senate, the bill is referred to the Legislative Bureau for review.

24) Hours later the Legislative Bureau reports that no additional amendments are added and it is then passed to third reading and final passage.

25) Hours later with the rules suspended in order to move House bills out of the Senate that day, the bill is passed with bipartisan support (and bipartisan opposition) by a margin of 27-9. Three additional Democrats join three of their colleagues who voted against the bill in committee. Three Republicans who are not on the Senate and Governmental Affairs also vote against.

26) The next day the House of Representatives concurs with the bill as amended in the Senate 91-0.

27) The Speaker of the House signs the bill and sends it to the President of the Senate.

28) Senate President signs the bill.

29) Sent to governor for approval or veto.

30) Five days later, HB 509 is signed by Governor Jindal as Act 293

So there you have it, how a bill became a law in its full splendor.

Somehow the civics book forgot to include the partisan sabotage, grassroots political pressure, clock management and procedural maneuvering that are unmentioned key ingredients in the legislative process.

Perhaps Bismarck had it right when he compared the process of making laws to that of making sausage.

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