March 2, 2009
|IN DEPTH: LEGISLATIVE ISSUES
Navigating That Capitol Hill Maze: Tracking the Legislative Process
By SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor
The legislative process is the backbone of federal funding for public transportation, but—like a human spine—it’s part of a complicated organism that can’t be understood without help. What follows is a “guided tour” that explains how bills are enacted—in this case, public transit-related bills—and why the process seems at times to take so long.
To begin with, any member of Congress can write a bill on any subject and submit it to the full chamber, which refers the legislation to a specific committee for consideration. Which committee will receive the legislation, though, is less straightforward.
In the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee considers authorizing legislation for transportation, which includes public transit. The Ways and Means Committee oversees transit financing, including the Highway Trust Fund and commuter benefits, and the House Appropriations Committee takes care of apportioning funds. The appropriations bill that includes U.S. DOT also covers the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, while the Department of Homeland Security has its own appropriations bill, which includes transit security.
The situation is even more dispersed in the Senate. The Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee covers public transit; the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee oversees highways; and the Commerce Committee has responsibility for passenger and freight rail, including intercity rail. The Senate Appropriations Committee takes care of transportation appropriations, but the Highway Trust Fund is in the purview of the Senate Finance Committee.
Climate change legislation, which may have a transit component, relies on yet another set of Congressional committees, primarily the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Senate EPW.
The Administration launches the legislative process for major bills such as budgets and the pending six-year transportation authorization bill by submitting its version of the legislation to Congress. Congress rarely enacts the Administration’s bill without making changes.
Members of Congress introduce a large number of bills, many of which never progress beyond consideration by a committee or subcommittee. Legislators need a reason to move a specific bill, such as funding specific needs or dealing with a particular problem.
In general, the process goes like this:
A member of Congress introduces a bill to the full House or Senate, which assigns the bill to the committee of jurisdiction.
The legislation receives consideration first in a subcommittee, then in the full committee. Along the way, senior committee staff plan hearings on topics related to the issues covered in the bill; they receive input from members of the committee, consult with interested organizations, and ultimately invite witnesses to testify.
The subcommittees incorporate information obtained during the hearings as they prepare draft legislation for the full committee. Separate bills on similar topics may make their way through the House and Senate at the same time, each with its own schedule for hearings, committee meetings, and procedural votes.
Subcommittee members “mark up” (amend) the draft bill until the majority agrees to submit the revised bill to the parent full committee, which then holds its own mark-up session. The full committee may insert entire new sections to the bill, even to the point of preparing a completely different version.
If components of the legislation fall under the jurisdiction of another committee, it goes there after passing the primary committee by majority vote. After the committees finish their oversight, the bill is then “reported out” to the full chamber of its respective body of Congress.
The full House and Senate debate, amend, and vote on their respective surface transportation bills, after which a conference committee is formed to reconcile differences between the two and arrive at a mutually acceptable compromise.
Once the conference committee agrees on a final version of the bill, it is returned to each body of Congress for final passage. The full House and Senate must vote on conference bills in their entirety, exactly as presented by the conferees. When the conference bill has passed both houses, it goes to the president for signature.
Planning a House Hearing
Jim Berard, director of communications for the House T&I Committee, explained the ins and outs of preparing for a committee hearing—a process that can take a month or longer.
The planning process begins with the housekeeping issues, he explained. When is the next Congressional recess? What other hearings are already on the schedule? Are the committee chairman and specific witnesses only available at certain times?
“Congressional staffers have to familiarize themselves with the particular issue, the people who would be best to testify, when planning a hearing,” Berard said. He noted cases where the staff has “a ready-made witness list,” such as a Feb. 24 hearing of the T&I Aviation Subcommittee regarding the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. The subcommittee heard from crew members on the flight, an air traffic controller who talked to them during the incident, and representatives of regulatory and professional organizations.
Witnesses submit their written testimony before the hearing, so all members of the committee can receive copies. The text of the written testimony appears on the committee’s web site following the hearing.
Justin Harclerode, communications director for the committee’s Republican staff and members, noted that most hearings are related to an issue rather than a specific piece of legislation. “For example,” he said, “the committee may hold a hearing on ways to finance highway and transit projects as opposed to a hearing on the transportation authorization bill.”
Berard also pointed out that a bill need not be considered dead if it is left in committee; it may be reintroduced in a slightly different form, often following discussion among members of the committee.
“Very often, bills that don’t survive on their own get incorporated into larger bills along the way,” he said of the enactment process. “The overwhelming majority of legislation dies in subcommittee. The way the process is set up, the legislation is immediately referred to at least one committee, then to a subcommittee of jurisdiction. Often the bill goes nowhere.”
He pointed out that the legislative system, as involved as it is, dates back to the early days of the nation. “As inefficient as it may sometimes seem, that’s the process that was designed by the framers of the Constitution. They wanted to make sure only the bills that had the most support could make it through the entire process,” he said.