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How Laws Are Made
Amid the grand marble halls of the Capitol building, members of Congress and their aides are busy crafting the country's policies. It's not a pretty process; as congressional commentators have quipped, laws are like sausages—it's best not to know how either is made. Here's a brief tour through Washington's sausage factory.
The Lightbulb Stage
Most laws begin as mere proposals that any of Congress's 535 members may offer in the form of bills. Many are trivial, such as renaming post-office branches. Others are vital, like the funding of the federal government. Once introduced, all proposals move to congressional committee.
Congressional Committees and Committee Hearings
Thousands of proposals are introduced each year, but almost all die in committee. Congress has nowhere near enough time to entertain each bill, so committee leaders must prioritize. Many bills are dismissed for ideological reasons; for example, the conservative proposal to privatize Social Security has little chance of being considered by committees headed by liberal Democrats. Many other bills simply lack urgency. Efforts to rein in fuel costs, for instance, were popular when gas prices topped $4 a gallon, then lost steam when costs fell below $2. Special-interest money is another factor dictating the success or failure of individual bills.
More-fortunate bills continue to the committee hearing stage, where experts discuss their merits and drawbacks. These hearings—staged in the congressional office buildings adjacent to the Capitol—are usually open to the public; check www.house.gov and www.senate.gov under the "committee" headings for schedules. Committee members then vote on whether to move bills to the chamber floor.
Passing the House, Senate, and White House
A bill approved by committee still faces three formidable tests before becoming a law: it must pass the full House, the full Senate, and usually the White House.
Complicating matters, each legislative chamber has different rules for approving bills. In the House, proposals require a simple majority to pass whereas in the Senate opponents can block a bill simply by debating it indefinitely (watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for a dramatic example). Senate leaders can block filibusters, but to do it requires support from three-fifths of the chamber, that's 60 out of the 100 senators. The controversial $787-billion economic stimulus bill, for example, passed in February 2009 only after Democrats (who then held 58 seats) convinced three Republicans to support the proposal.
A bill passed by both the House and the Senate then proceeds to the White House. The president can either sign it—in which case it becomes law—or veto it, in which case it returns to Congress. Lawmakers can override the veto, but two-thirds of each chamber must support the override to transform a vetoed bill into law. When President George W. Bush twice vetoed a popular children's health care proposal, for example, House supporters couldn't rally the two-thirds majority to override it. But, the bill became law once President Barack Obama took over the White House.
If all this sounds complicated, it is. Then again, no one poking around a sausage ever said it's easy to decipher the parts.
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