This month I am returning to the basics. Congress is winding down the first session of the 109th Congress. While there is still another year left for the thousands of bills introduced, October and November is the crunch-time for your favorite bills. Beware that your bill may not make it through Congress as a bill, instead as an amendment to another bill. This makes tracking your bill difficult.
Congress’ primary role is to legislate: to write or modify the law through legislation. Legislation is written instructions to the Federal government, the courts, the states and to us individuals on what is acceptable and unacceptable, regulated and unregulated, and on how money is spent, taxes are levied and treaties are ratified. The other role of Congress – to oversee the executive and judicial branches of government, I will ignore.
Legislation takes the form of a bill (See: I’m just a bill). This bill moves through the legislative process that has been honed for over 200 years in Washington, DC. Since I arrived in Washington, DC in 1985, following these bill documents through their course has been my job, except for the periods that I got so frustrated with the task that I decided to do other things.
Following a bill through Congress is an ideal job, not for a human, but a computer. It is no surprise that the first use of computers in assisting a legislative hack was to use them to track the progress of bills. Not finding a bill, or analyzing them, comparing them, but only to track them. In 1979, a small Texas company that tracked Texas bills was bored. The Texas legislature meets every 2 years and they had nothing to track, so they took their show up to Washington, DC. A "subscriber" would dial their phone; insert their phone hand set into an acoustic coupler attached to their IBM PC or clone. They then would type in the bill number of the bill they wish to track, and then hang up. Every now and then, they would repeat the process, either to add another bill number or to check what has happened on their previous bills.
This sounds very simple and almost primitive. But at the time, it was great! The alternative would be to read the Congressional Record every morning, hoping you had drank enough coffee to catch a reference to your bill number.
Ironically, despite all the changes since 1979, things are not that different today. Sure there is email now, you need not dial up and check your bill status, it will be sent to you automatically. The process still works in the same way. Overnight, the Congressional Record is parsed a thousand different ways by a computer, matched to your bill actions (if any) and you are notified.
For those of you who have read my previous articles, you know that there is more to monitoring Congress than just tracking a particular bill, but for now that will remain our focus.
Why do people track bills in Congress? Besides the obvious, that this bill will impact someone, if not everyone, they will want to know what the status is. Also, many organizations in Washington, DC exist just to watch bills. Some people monitor specific actions, such as when someone attaches their name to a bill as a cosponsor. A new cosponsor to a bill could mean that someone was an effective lobbyist. Many others watch the language of the bill, what words have been changed, clauses deleted, sections added. In the glad-handing, backslapping world of Washington, DC, bill tracking is downright boring. I am sometimes reminded, however, that it is the boring tasks that make the machine run. Remember it was the dull accountant that brought down Al Capone, not the gun-totting G-Men.
One significant change since 1979 was the introduction of C-SPAN, the cable television monitoring of floor actions in the House and the Senate. This has been a big improvement for my colleagues at GalleryWatch because we used to have to go and sit in the Gallery and watch what was going on. Now the GalleryWatch House and Senate floor managers just sit in big comfortable chairs, watch the television and type in amendments and votes in the relative comfort of the office. It has also increased the speed of information. Instead of waiting to be notified of changes overnight, you can be notified by pager or email within a minute or two of the action.
A bill tracking mechanism will tell you of any new development on the bill: hearings scheduled in committee, committee passage, floor action, amendments, speeches and votes. Tracking a bill requires some knowledge of the different types of bills. Also you should be aware of the various arcane procedures, the perennial favorite being the Senate’s cloture rules. Without denigrating all the procedures, any of them could tie up or end consideration of the bill; the critical step in the process is Amendments. They are the bane of the legislative monitor. No serious piece of legislation beyond the "Karl Malden Post Office" re-naming bill (S. 1755) makes it through the process without being amended. Following these actions will test all your skills and the capabilities of any computer and any online legislative monitoring service.
It has always seemed to me that Congress is in a never-ending battle with the legislative monitors. Once the monitors have a good system Congress utilizes some existing element to make it harder. Sort of like an arms race, Congress is continually trying to outwit the monitors. You may discount this as merely paranoia, but I do think there is something to it. Amendments are the current battleground.
Amendments are certainly not new. The more you get into following a bill, the more you appreciate the role and impact of an amendment. They sneak in and destroy your precious bill or gut its impact. No computer can help you here, except by telling you when an amendment was made and possibly, if you have a good monitoring service, give you the text of the amendment.
Amendments can be offered on the floor or in committee. Floor amendments are easy; they are usually printed in the Congressional Record. Of course, 2nd degree amendments made on the floor at 11:00pm will have to wait for their official printing. Committee amendments do not even have the certainty of the Congressional Record. You need a good pair of shoes, a good Rolodex, or a good monitoring service for Committee amendments.
An amendment can be a little one-line change or they can substitute the entire text of the bill with a new bill – hi-jacking it for other purposes. Often Amendments appear pretty ordinary, this amendment was offered earlier this year to the Transportation Reauthorization Bill (HR 3):
|Amendment to H.R. 3|
Offered by Mr. Young of Alaska
Page 36, strike line 19 and all that follows before "There is authorized" on line 23.
Besides saving a cool $20 million, this amendment could be trouble. If you were not following this bill, the odds are you would never know about it until the FBI knocked on your door (this amendment was actually a technical change, don’t worry).
Committee amendments can be quite hilarious. I have a stack of them sitting next to me; some of them look like they were written by a 14 year old attending some model United Nations and written on 1932 Royal typewriter. Many have whole lines and paragraphs crossed out by hand. Let’s hope that crossed out line is not my Social Security account (or some cherished liberty). But then again that is why there are two other branches of government (Executive and Judicial) to keep an eye out for me.
Congress can play pretty loose with amendments. This year I have seen amendments to bills that don’t exist! I noted in an earlier article the spectacle of a “Mock Markup” submitting "Mock Amendments" to the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
A good mechanism for keeping tabs on amendments is a good idea. It can be time consuming, and a good service (like mine) would save some time and effort. Anyway you do it, they are the part of the bill tracking process that you do not want to ignore. For it may not be a bill that interests you, it may be an amendment.