What Really Happens When ‘a Bill Becomes Law’

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What Really Happens When ‘a Bill Becomes Law’

August 24, 2015

In civics and government books, “how a bill becomes law” shows multiple steps during which representatives consider bills before enactment. Unfortunately, such responsible deliberation, necessary to even a minimal prospect of legislation advancing the general welfare, is violated by “gut and amend” bills at the end of legislative sessions.

As legislators race to pass bills under deadline, power brokers gut bills that have cleared most legislative hurdles, and replace them with completely different bills. Then, in the last-minute frenzy, they rush them through the last steps with minimal scrutiny (e.g., with multiple committee hearings in one room in an hour).  

Consider examples from California, whose September 11 deadline is fast approaching. A 2014 article titled “It’s Gut-And-Amend Time at the Capitol” featured a Silverlake Reservoir bill’s transformation into a requirement that gun buyback programs test weapons for involvement in crimes. 2013 featured a bill whose subject morphed from California Environmental Quality Act exemptions for housing projects to increased funding for alternative vehicle technology. A 2012 pension reform bill instead repealed a fire prevention fee. 2011’s 48 GandA bills in the last three weeks included morphing a measure to add allow tuberculosis information to be disclosed into one barring local governments from banning project labor agreements and converting a bill to raise filing fees for ballot initiatives into one allowing ballot initiatives only during November general elections. In 2010, a coastal development bill ended up regulating lobster trap dimensions, and a bill about non-profits’ electrical service instead regulated ocean water cooling of power plants.

Unfortunately for citizens, such last-minute maneuvers often preclude reading, much less real evaluation. Yet bills sensible enough to command sufficient consensus can pass in daylight. Only legislation failing that test requires GandA evasions.

Despite being blatantly at odds with advancing citizens’ welfare, GandA has defenders, particularly among the power brokers and their favorites it confers great power on. But their preposterous argument is particularly instructive.

GandA’s defense boils down to claiming that, despite missing deadlines or failing to get approval, sometimes legislatures “just need to act.” But that is not a reason; it simply assumes its conclusion—proponents must be allowed to circumvent the rules to enact failed pet projects and special favors just because they decided it was necessary.

The core problem is that for GandA bills to benefit citizens requires several things to be true which are not.

The bill would have to be the legislature’s business. Unfortunately, despite injecting itself everywhere, very little legislation can actually advance our general welfare. Benefiting some at others’ expense is another matter, but such bills deserve destruction, not being greased through.

Only the legislature must be competent to deal with the issue. Where people can work things out for themselves, no legislation is needed, except repeal of what prevents voluntary private solutions. Those politicians laud for their wisdom during campaigns deserve the power to use it concerning their own affairs.

The problem must be too urgent to wait for ensuing terms. And the sponsor must know how to implement an efficient and equitable solution, despite being unable to convince colleagues of it.

Any bill meeting such requirements could navigate normal legislative processes. So a legitimate GandA candidate must also come as a sudden surprise. But imagining legislators can quickly develop real solutions to serious problems unrecognized just weeks before, yet need to sneak them through, fails the credibility test.

Gut and amend survives only because it lets urgency disguise legislators’ dictates from public accountability. Capitol power brokers may “need” it for their purposes, but it undermines rather than advances citizens’ well-being. So the latter is sacrificed to the former. It empowers those controlling legislative clout, who are rewarded by their pet backers, but that special treatment necessarily comes at others’ expense. That is why eliminating GandA is important. Unfortunately, it is also why legislatures repeatedly kill such attempts.

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