Analysis: Here’s how a bill really becomes law

Remember the textbook you read in school that laid out a few neat steps about how a bill becomes law? That might not tell the whole story.

The human factor seldom is discussed in texts. Also often lacking are discussions about lobbyists and partisan politics. But most mysterious and missing may be party caucus meetings, where many of the real decisions are made.

First, however, here are some of those technical steps to how a bill becomes law:

• Legislators put an idea for a new law into writing.

• The bill is referred to a committee that deals with its subject.

• One or more committees consider the proposal and might pass it on to the full House or Senate.

• The House or Senate debates the bill, eventually either defeating it or passing it and sending it on to the other chamber.

• If the second chamber passes the bill as is, it moves on to the governor for his signature.

• If the two chambers pass different versions, a conference committee made up of House and Senate members tries to work out a compromise.

• Once both chambers pass the same form of a bill, the governor’s signature is needed for it to become law. He also can veto it, and the House and Senate could override a veto if there are enough votes.

But with thousands of bills introduced every session, not everything can be debated (more than 3,000 bills awaited lawmakers when they returned to session this year). So leaders elected by each of the four caucuses – House Republicans, House Democrats, Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats – cull the bills that committees hear, with average legislators left to lobby their colleagues to consider their bills.

Actually, many bills lawmakers introduce are not meant to reach a vote. Instead, they are introduced to keep a lawmakers’ constituents happy.

Decisions about what bills actually get committee hearings are based on rationales ranging from what has a chance to pass to what bills the majority party in a chamber supports. Bills brought up by members of the other party are less likely to be debated.

Before and after private caucus meetings, lobbyists talk to legislators about bills they are paid to advocate – or oppose. Many legislators find these meetings helpful because lawmakers themselves do not have time to research every bill.

Private caucus meetings of majority parties are where most major decisions are made. Caucus members discuss bills before they reach the full chamber. When majority caucus members mostly agree on an issue, there is little the other side can do to derail a proposal.

This year, Republicans control both the House and Senate, so they can pass many bills without working with legislative Democrats. However, they need to work with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton to get a bill signed.

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