The Basics of the Legislative Process
How to Pass Legislation
In the beginning…The idea for a bill generally originates with an individual or group that has a special interest in the subject. It could be based on an incident of personal tragedy or experience, or it could be part of the mission of a special interest group, including large industry lobbyists and small not-for-profit organizations.
The legislative process is basically the same on the state and federal level. Like the federal government, most state legislatures have two chambers, a House of Representatives (or Assembly) and a Senate. Both chambers must pass the legislation, wherever you start the process. We all have Representatives and Senators at both the federal and state level of government who we elect and who are answerable to us, their constituents.
Since most animal issues are regulated on the state level, that is the example we will use.
If you are the individual proposing the idea, the first step is to put it in writing. Start with an outline that answers the following questions:
What is the problem? Identify a specific problem that you would like to see solved.
Do you have a solution to this problem? Can you offer suggestions as to how to solve the problem?
Who does this problem affect? Who is troubled by the problem and who would benefit from your solution?
Who would be opposed to your solution? This is not an essential part of your proposal, but it is helpful to a legislator if you can let him/her know up front who is likely to oppose it.
Do you have any supporting documentation? Newspaper accounts, letters to the editor, discussions on websites, articles on-line or in print that help explain either the scope of your problem or the benefits of your proposed solution.
Once you have outlined your proposal, write it up in a format that will be easy for a legislator to read—preferably no more than one or two pages.
Once you have this proposal in hand, than you can make an appointment to meet with your state Representative or Senator to ask them to sponsor a bill. Representatives are generally easier to meet as they have a smaller number of constituents to serve. Most legislators are interested in hearing only from their own constituents, since these are the people who elected them to office.
If you belong to a group, you have an advantage because you can select a particular legislator who is known to support your cause, or who has a voting record that would make them a likely proponent, and then enlist someone from their district to present the idea on behalf of the entire group. The idea should be in writing, either as a simple statement with a brief summary of the purpose, or as a fully written model law. Be aware that once your idea enters the legislative process, it is no longer yours and can be changed at any time during the process.
Once your legislator agrees to sponsor the bill, it is submitted by him/her to the state legislative service, where they identify any existing laws that it would affect and draw up the language accordingly. It is then assigned a bill number and introduced in the chamber where they serve (House or Senate). Let’s assume that the bill is introduced first in the House.
When a bill is introduced, it must be assigned to a specific committee in order to be considered fully. The full House cannot possibly review each of the hundreds—or even thousands—of bills introduced each year. There may be a dozen committees to choose from, each one specializing in bills on a particular topic, such as health, education, judiciary, etc. The committee can conduct hearings, solicit testimony and gather additional information if they choose. Or they can ignore the bill until their session is over and the bill “dies in committee.” It is the committee chair that generally determines which bills are heard and has the power to stall or move forward a particular bill.
This committee, if it approves of the bill, will recommend its passage to the full chamber of the House. Representatives who were not assigned to that committee then have an opportunity to vote on the issue. If it passes, the bill is sent to the Senate, where the entire process is repeated by assigning the bill to the appropriate Senate committee, where hearings may be conducted again or the bill may stall.
If the Senate committee decides to amend (change) the bill, and the full Senate accepts that change, then the bill must return to the House for approval of the amended language. If the versions cannot be reconciled, a joint committee may be convened with representatives from each chamber to decide on a final version of the bill. The House and Senate then must approve of this final version to proceed.
If the House and Senate both approve an identical version of the bill, it goes to the Governor for his/her signature or to the President if it is federal legislation.
The Governor (or for a federal bill, the President) can veto the bill, even if it has approval from both chambers of the legislature. The legislature can override a veto, if enough support is there.
Once the signature of the Governor is on the bill, it becomes law. Some bills become effective instantly, while others have an effective date that is earlier or later than the date of the signature.
Only a very small percentage of all bills introduced are passed into law.
A specific example of an idea that has faced the legislative process—successfully and unsuccessfully—is a ban on testing personal care products on animals. We all know that it is not necessary or even beneficial to consumers to have these tests done, not to mention the pain and suffering of the animals involved. Yet many large companies continue to test for a variety of reasons.
To date, only New Jersey and California have successfully enacted (made into law) a ban on testing on animals for cosmetics—and those laws are conditional on the existence of non-animal methods being available to test for the same properties for which animals are used. Here is an excerpt from the California statute:
“1834.9. (a) Manufacturers and contract testing facilities shall not use traditional animal test methods within this state for which an appropriate alternative test method has been scientifically validated and recommended by the Inter-Agency Coordinating Committee for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ICCVAM) and adopted by the relevant federal agency or agencies or program within an agency responsible for regulating the specific product or activity for which the test is being conducted.” Click here for the full text.
While this law has exceptions and conditions, it is a rule that applies to everyone in the state and is enforceable by the judicial system.
A much more common occurrence is the introduction of a similar bill in New York. This bill, A 779, was introduced in the 2003-2004 legislative session. It was referred—twice during the two-year legislative session—to the Health Committee, then the Code Committee, where no further action was taken. While the bill was not technically “dead,” it was unlikely to move out of the committee for a vote after such a lengthy stay in committee, when the committee chair refuses to act.
If you are interested in introducing a bill in your own state and would like some suggested language, there are model laws available on a number of different issues at Animallaw.com.