The tedious process of
passing bills into law.
January is probably the most exciting time of the year for the legislature. A new year brings new opportunities. Committees begin meeting, constituents begin visiting, and bills begin working their way through the process of becoming laws. That process is long and difficult, which is by design.
Only a very small number of bills make it out of the legislature, and even fewer are signed into law. Last session, 2,270 bills were filed between the Missouri House and the Senate. Only 59 of those were sent to the governor for signature. One bill was vetoed, and 15 were partially vetoed. That means just 2.5% of the total bills filed made it into the statute books. Why do so few bills get through?
Well, when someone brings an idea to me that I agree should be a law, the first thing I have to do is talk to our research department. The Senate and House each have a staff of lawyers and experts who help draft bills to file during session. The researchers all have specialty areas, and usually an idea for new or changed law can be sent to the person who focuses on that area of law. The researchers turn the ideas into a bill that accomplishes what I want to accomplish.
From that point, the bill is filed with the secretary of the Senate. They have the unenviable job of keeping track of all bills, amendments, motions, and rulings that happen to a bill. After the session begins, bills are read. Each bill must have its number and the purpose of the bill read out loud on the Senate floor twice, and the two readings can’t be on the same day. After that, the bill is assigned to a committee.
Bills are typically assigned to a committee that deals with the type of law that has been proposed in the bill. A bill about cattle farming would most likely go to the Senate Agriculture Committee. A bill concerning crime would most likely go to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Once the bill has been assigned to a committee, it is almost completely within the control of the chairman of that committee. This is where a majority of the bills die, as the committees simply don’t have enough time to handle every bill assigned to them. The chairman can choose to take no action or to have the bill heard in an open committee hearing. After a hearing, the chairman may then choose to hold a vote whether to recommend that the original bill “do pass” or to recommend that a substitute for the bill be voted.
If the committee votes the bill should pass, it is then turned in during a session of the Senate and placed on what is known as the formal bill calendar. When bills are called in order from the formal calendar, the bill’s sponsor either moves to take up the bill for perfection or to lay the bill on the informal calendar. Once a bill is on the informal calendar, it can be called back up for perfection at any time at the discretion of the majority floor leader.
During perfection, senators have a chance to debate the bill and add amendments. This can be a simple process, in which only a few questions are asked and no amendments are offered, or it can be a drawn-out slog. If someone decides to filibuster the bill (talk the bill to death) perfection of a bill can take hours and sometimes days, and few bills survive this. Of the few bills that make it out of committee, a majority die during perfection.
Once a bill has been perfected, however, it is read a third time to be declared finally passed. It is rare for a bill to survive perfection but then be voted down during a third reading. After being finally passed, the bill is sent to the Missouri House of Representatives; and, like the old “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoon says, the whole thing starts all over again. The process in the House isn’t identical to the Senate, as they have their own rules, but it is typically quicker than the Senate because the House doesn’t allow for debate to go on at length the way the Senate does. Often, the House will send back their own version of the bill. At that point, the Senate can adopt the House changes or ask the House to hold a conference committee where members of the Senate and the House meet to agree to a final version of the bill. If that happens, both the House and Senate must hold a vote to approve the conference committee report that contains the final version of the bill.
Once a piece of legislation has made it through both the House and Senate, it is declared “truly agreed” and “finally passed.” From that point, the bill goes to the desk of the Governor who can either sign a bill, veto a bill, or take no action. Unlike the “pocket veto” of a U.S. President, when the Governor takes no action, the bill is considered approved by the governor. This is known colloquially as a “pocket approval.”
Seeing how much effort it takes to pass a bill, just from the Senate perspective, emphasizes and makes clear why so few pieces of legislation actually become law. It is, however, a very rewarding and important process to take someone’s good idea and turn it into a law that benefits everyone.
Sen. Mike Bernskoetter took office in 2019, serving the 6th Senatorial District. Before being elected to the Missouri Senate, he served as a representative for the 59th District in the Missouri House of Representatives.