How does a bill really become a law? We all learned about the process in school, but what really matters are the people who sit in those legislative seats making decisions each day.
Most state legislators want to do the right thing and want to serve their constituents, but they must absorb an impossible amount of information in a short amount of time and can’t become experts on everything. Also, because they campaigned in order to get something done, they are reluctant to oppose each other too aggressively lest they be treated the same way in return.
Because of all that, a bill has a decent chance of passing if it seems to be a good idea at first glance, if the legislator sponsoring it has credibility, and if other issues attract more attention.
The good news is that state government is not paralyzed by gridlock, that Republicans and Democrats can work together, and that Arkansans are not subjected to the kind of daily mudslinging that comes from Washington.
On the other hand, bills can slip through the cracks more easily here than in the nation’s capital.
Here’s how. Once a bill is written, it next must be considered in committee. Legislators try to be deliberate there, but they often must consider a long list of bills and often can devote only enough time to hear from a few witnesses. The bill’s sponsor, a fellow legislator, makes his or her case sitting at the end of the same long table where the committee members sit. Sometimes these debates last an hour or more, but often it’s much less. The chair then asks what the legislators want to do, and someone calls for the motion to pass or not pass. It takes a conscious act for a legislator to break the momentum, and there are consequences for doing so. Then they vote.
If the bill passes the committee, there is a good chance it will pass the full house because legislators rely on the judgments of the committee members. Once it passes one house, it moves into committee in the other. If it passes that house’s committee without amendments, it probably will become law.
Thankfully, the process takes long enough that really bad ideas tend to be stopped. Legislators in one house catch details missed by those in the other. Interest groups mobilize their memberships to educate and persuade their representatives. As a last defense, the governor can veto a bill, and while the Legislature can override it with a simple majority, his gesture can draw attention to a problem.
By now, legislators have been away from their homes, jobs and families for two months and are ready for this session to end.
However, there’s still lots of work to be done and probably not much more than a month to do it. A slew of tax cut bills hasn’t really been considered. Legislators and the governor are still trying to determine whether and how to expand government-funded health care options for the working poor. The budget, as always, has yet to be written.
After Monday’s filing deadline, legislators had proposed 2,560 bills, or 325 more than were filed in 2011. More than 650 were filed on the last possible day, and some of those were little more than titles with the text of the bill to be added later.
Each bill represents a potential change to Arkansas life. Many will be well considered, but many will just slip through. Some of those will be significant and all will have the force of law.
Let’s hope legislators keep in mind that it’s usually better to pass no law than a bad one. After all, while Arkansas is an imperfect place, it doesn’t need 2,560 changes – at least not all in three months, and not all coming from Little Rock.
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.