CongressLine by A Bill in Congress

Paul Jenks,


My sister-in-law called me last year in a panic. She was apoplectic about the military draft and very worried that her three teenaged sons were going to be drafted. "There is a bill in Congress!"

I understood her concern about my nephews’ possible military careers, but was perplexed by her certainty about the likelihood, just because a bill was introduced in Congress.

An introduced bill in Congress is highly overrated. Most civics classes will not tell you that however, so it is understandable that my sister-in-law was concerned. Of course, if the draft were to be re-introduced, there would have to be some sort of legislative vehicle to re-start it. You can’t have the draft without a bill (or amendment), but because you have a bill does not mean you have the draft.

In the 108th Congress (2002-2004) 8,621 bills were introduced, 498 were enacted into law.

In the whole grand scheme of legislative bodies, Congress is not that bad. About 6% of all legislation introduced in Congress actually passes. Compared to many State legislatures, that is an impressive number. The percentage is in fact much better than it used to be but this probably due to rule changes that lifted the limit on the number of cosponsors of a bill (previously there was a limit, so many different versions of the same bill were introduced).

The common assumption is that bills are introduced because a member or group of members wants them to pass. This is not always true. The military draft example was introduced by Rep. Rangel (D- NY) – HR 163 (108th Congress). While Rep. Rangel has called for this measure in the past, he may have been surprised that it was allowed to come up for a vote. The measure failed by a whopping 402 – 2 vote and Rep. Rangel was not one of the two voting for the measure. It was generally seen to be an election year gimmick.

A historical footnote on the draft measure - in 1940 the draft really was re-instituted as Hitler was rampaging across Europe. The bill passed by one vote. Last fall’s Rangel bill was only able to garner two votes. Rangel is back at it again this year with a new bill (HR 2723).

Sometimes bills are introduced knowing full well they have no chance, but a certain constituent or constituency needs the reassurance of a bill in Congress. There is a whole category of bills called Private Measures that are purely that, usually adjusting such things as citizenship status of a specific individual. (Private Measures are becoming less common in the modern era.)

A stand-alone bill that passes Congress in most cases is purely ceremonial, technical or private in nature. The majority pass by voice vote, often by unanimous consent. This is hardly an impressive accomplishment. The U.S. Congress is fairly good in this regard; at least there can be some controversy and debate for a stand-alone bill and a bill can be rejected. In Sweden, by the time a bill moves to passage in the Riksdag it has gone through such a long vetting process with all possible parties consenting that a measure rarely fails final passage.

Here is a breakdown of the various types of bills and resolutions in Congress and their designations and the number of introduced so far this year (as of November 14):

Bills (H.R. or S.) 6,279
Joint Resolutions (S.J.Res. Or H.J.Res.) 100
Concurrent Resolutions (S.Con.Res or H.Con Res.) 360
Simple Resolutions (H.Res. or S. Res.) 861

The first two, Bills and Joint Resolutions, are the most significant, as they have the force of law; the latter two are used for commemorative measures or organizing and disciplinary measures within Congress.

This discussion about bills purposely follows my article about amendments, which can be much more important vehicles than the introduced bill. The significance of a bill for many people is not the bill itself, but the nature of the bill (Appropriations or Authorization), amendments to the bill, and for some lobbyists: who has cosponsored the bill.

Appropriations and Authorization Bills are the bills everyone watches. These are bills that have to pass. Arguably the only thing Congress has to do is pass these bills. They are the bills appropriating money to the Federal government. Because they have to pass they are usually the repository of all the desires, wants, demands and projects of every Senator and Member. Ironically, even though these bills are so necessary, they are passed by the skin of the Congressional tooth. Like clockwork, Congress will wait to the very last minute to pass these bills, usually lumped into one bill, called a Consolidated or Omnibus bill. Authorization bills are related to the Appropriations bills and technically Congress is supposed to ‘authorize’ before they ‘appropriate.’ This ‘authorize then appropriate’ concept often doesn’t happen. Some authorization bills are introduced annually like the Defense Authorization Bill. Most are usually introduced every few years or so - such as “The Farm Bill” or the giant “Transportation Bill” or re-authorization of any specific program. This year Congress is attempting to re-authorize the Head Start program. So while Appropriations and Authorization measures account for a small number of the total number of bills, they are the most important ones.

Another reason why bills get more of a play in the world of my sister-in-law is that they are very enticing. They are written in the most official, elegant form Congress can muster and usually cite a long litany of ailments or benefits before changing the nitty gritty detail of the law. They also generate news; a bill in Congress is newsworthy. An amendment to a bill on the other hand, has no such sex appeal, and strikes right to the heart of the matter. They are newsworthy only to the inside Washington folks, not usually to the general media, although there are exceptions to this.

If Rep. Rangel’s military draft measure was an amendment to an Appropriations bill, and introduced by a Senator, then I would have taken notice and maybe even called my sister-in-law.

Many veteran lobbyists in Washington have framed copies of the signature pages of bills, signed most ceremoniously with the fancy seal of the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House. It is a real badge of honor and took a lot of really hard work to move that baby through Congress; it is rightfully on the wall in a gold frame.

Then again, it may have been a bill for the renaming of the Post Office in Los Angeles to be the "Karl Malden Post Office" (H.R. 3667).