Why is it hard to pass bills? And why is it also hard to stop bills?
During this past summer, you may have noticed an uptick in social media infographics asking people to contact their representatives and ask them to vote a certain way on bills going through Georgia’s legislature.
We have all learned in government classes how bills are made: first someone has an idea. A legislator composes a bill in response to the idea, and then the bill is filed, read to the legislature, and assigned to a committee. The committee discusses it and then either recommends its passage, recommends its passage with amendment, or kills it. The bills that are not killed are voted on by the full legislature, and then it travels to the other house to undergo the same process. When both chambers of the legislature have passed the same version of the bill, it goes to the governor for either a signature or a veto. The process sounds simple enough – so why is it so hard to get a bill passed? And, conversely, why is it simultaneously so hard to stop a bill from being passed?
1. Volume of bills and time constraints
The legislature files hundreds of bills every session, and each one is important to some group of people. It would be impossible for the legislature to consider every bill within the annual forty day legislative session. Some bills are only a paragraph or so in length, and others are several pages. It takes time to draft bills, consider the wording, and consider how the bill’s passage would affect Georgians.
2. Disconnect between voters’ behavior and voters’ best interests
Voters do not always act in their best interest; they do not always elect the person that will best represent them. For many reasons, the makeup of the legislature does not reflect the makeup of the state of Georgia, and this disconnect affects the decision making process. Even if incumbent legislators actively vote for bills that their constituents are opposed to, the majority of incumbents who run for reelection are elected again. Moreover, the number of voters who contact their legislators and ask them to vote a certain way is small compared to the number who vote in elections. It is rare that constituents will be able to change a legislator’s vote on a bill since legislators know the number of people who vote for them will probably not drastically change. Legislators have to balance other factors when deciding how to vote in addition to their constituents’ opinions, like their party’s stance, the stance of campaign contributors, their personal beliefs, and what they believe is best for their district.
Ultimately, bills need the support of leadership in order to pass. In Georgia, the majority in both chambers and the executive branch are controlled by the same party. The majority party also decides which committees bills are assigned to and picks the chairs of the committees. The committee chairs pick which bills they hold hearings on and which bills they send to the floor for voting. Therefore, a bill needs to be at least somewhat popular with some members of the majority in order to receive a vote from the full House or senate. The majority can also easily kill a bill by assigning it to a committee where it will not receive a hearing, or by not putting the bill on the calendar to be voted on. The bill also needs to be signed by the governor. Since the governor and the legislature are controlled by the same party, if the governor vetoes a bill, it is very unlikely that the legislature would decide to overrule it.
4. The Governor
The governor will run a campaign around several issues that he or she hopes to address during his or her term. However, the governor has limited power to enact change by himself. For this reason, the governor appoints different members of each legislative chamber as floor leaders. They will propose and advocate for bills that match the governor’s policy goals. Since the governor and the majority in both houses in Georgia are members of the same party, the floor leader’s bills will usually receive attention from the legislature. It is difficult to stop a bill that is supported by the governor, since he represents all of Georgia, and has the support of the majority of the legislature.
5. House/Senate Rivalry
The house and the senate are often at odds with each other. The house leadership may purposely ignore a senate bill for this reason. In Georgia, the numbers of majority and minority members in the house are closer than in the senate where there are many more majority members than minority members. A bill popular with the senate may not receive as much support in the house because of the different party makeups.
6. Whips and caucuses
Not every member of the legislature is informed of all of the bills. Before most meetings of the legislature, the Republicans and the Democrats meet in their separate caucuses. A caucus is a group of legislators with some commonality; for example, in addition to party caucasus, there is also a women’s caucus and caucasus based on geographical location. In the caucus meetings, the leadership for the party will usually go over the bills that are scheduled to be voted on that day. In this way, each member of the party knows what the party’s stance on the different bills is, as well as any amendments or issues with the bill that may be brought up on the floor. Furthermore, each party has a whip, which is a member responsible for compiling the briefings on the bills and encouraging party members to vote in accord with the party’s stance.
7. Playing with time
During the legislative session, those who set the calendar can arrange the order of the bills strategically. If a chairman of one committee is waiting to see how another legislator votes before deciding on how to vote on that legislator’s bill, he or she may request that his or her bill is placed later in the order. If there is a particularly controversial bill that the majority wants passed, they may schedule that bill for the end of the day, when people are tired and will want to pass it without much debate. Those who are not able to influence the calendar can still influence the way the session unfolds. They can attempt to filibuster until they are certain that their bill will be receiving the votes it needs to pass, they can motion to table a bill for later to see if they can garner more support, or they can motion to remove bills from the table if they think it is a good time to discuss it. The bills’ authors can also limit discussion and how many questions are asked.
8. Follow the money
Oftentimes, companies will work with a legislator to propose a bill that is in their best interest. The company may even draft the same or very similar bills and try to get them passed in several states so that the company can operate more easily around the country. For example, a large agricultural company might try to pass laws that denote a lower property tax rate for land used for agricultural purposes. Companies can have their own lawyers draft bills and then send them to a legislator to file. Large companies that have substantial budgets for campaign contributions and lobbyists can contact and influence several members of the legislature. While outright bribery is of course not permitted, there are softer forms of acquiring votes. Campaign donations, sponsorships of events, and gifts of meals or products can be legally given to legislators. If a legislator wants to continue receiving the support from this company’s industry, he or she may continue to vote or even author the bills that the company is in support of. These industry-specific bills generally do not attract a lot of public attention from those outside the industry, as they can be hard to understand if one is not familiar with the concepts or jargon used. Nevertheless, they can have a big impact on industry in the state. Furthermore, companies that operate within the state have a large sway in bills. Companies like Delta, Coca-Cola, and Home Depot operate in Georgia and bring millions to its economy every year. The state has an interest in keeping these companies happy so that they continue to operate and contribute to the economy. Therefore, if several large companies are in favor of or opposed to a bill, there is a good chance the legislature will conform to the companies’ opinion. Georgia is consistently ranked as one of the best states to do business in, and the government wants to keep it that way. In some instances, the weight of the companies’ wishes outweigh the wishes of Georgia’s citizens.