Before one can truly appreciate the legislative process, one must first have an understanding of the committee system and the vital role that committees play in the process of shaping and moving a bill through the legislative system. Ultimately, a committee can make or break a bill. They do this by deciding whether or not to hear a bill, deciding who can testify on a bill, voting to move a bill forward, referring a bill to another committee, and in some cases, tabling a bill. It is therefore extremely important that one understand how the committee system works before beginning the process of drafting and sending a bill through the legislature.
Once a bill has been introduced, it is assigned to a committee. This is an important step in the process because assignment to the wrong committee can spell the end of a bill. In the majority of states, the House Speaker or Senate President makes the committee assignments. Other methods include assignment by a committee or by another member of the leadership. The decision of which committee is assigned certain bills is usually based on the bill's subject matter as well as the jurisdiction of various committees. However, if the person assigning the bill is opposed to the legislation, often times he or she can send it to a committee which is very unlikely to move it forward.
Once a bill has reached committee, the chair of the committee usually decides whether or not to hear the bill. By hearing the bill, the committee has the chance not only to hear both proponents and opponents speak, but also to amend and shape the bill in any way they choose.
Committee hearings are generally open to the public and they are the best opportunity for one to speak up in favor or in opposition to the particular bill being heard. Once the chair announces the beginning of a hearing on a specific bill, the first speaker is generally the bill's sponsor followed by members from both chambers who wish to comment on the bill. Once the members have spoken, it is generally open for public discussion by those who wish to comment and who have signed the witness sheet upon entering the hearing.
The committee members will often times ask the witness a lot of questions and may also propose various amendments throughout the hearing. Committee members may walk into the hearing already having drafted amendments they wish to propose. Other times, members will propose amendments after hearing the testimony. The amendments are voted on by the committee members and once an amendment passes, the bill is re-drafted to reflect those changes. In some cases, committees may propose so many amendments, that by the time final action is taken on the bill, it is unrecognizable in its original form. This often times happens when the committee members are already opposed to the bill before the hearing even begins, but want the chance to shape it in a way that more closely reflects their own stance. And, because committees are chaired by members of the majority party, a bill sponsored by a member of the minority party may or may not have a harder time being pushed through a committee at all, much less in its original form.
The committee's final action is a vote to determine whether to send the bill to the full House or Senate with a specific recommendation (favorable or unfavorable) or with no recommendation. In most states, committees are not required to report the bills at all and some may even rewrite the proposed legislation and report a committee substitute for the original bill. Because committees act in an advisory capacity, their actions must be voted on by all members during a House or Senate Session.
There are several types of committees. A standing committee continues in existence from one legislative session to the next, and the name usually reflects the subject matter of the bills it hears. All bills and resolutions introduced are referred to one or more of the chamber's standing committees.
Joint committees consist of members from both chambers. In most states, they are formed for a particular study or purpose such as to study and develop legislation dealing with state appropriations. Interim committees are also used to study a specific subject and cease to exist once their work is done. The difference, however, is that interim committees work between legislative sessions. Finally, conference committees are used to resolve differences in the language of bills passed by both chambers.
Because the various committees have so much influence and power over the bills that they hear, it is very important to be aware of how they work and the ways in which one can help influence committee action. The following are suggestions on how to make committees work for you.
Keep in mind that legislative staff may also be an asset to your advocacy. Where the structural organization of staff permits, you may be able to gain insight into the committee process and the politics surrounding your bill or legislative topic by discussing it with staff.
Ultimately, the committee hearing the bill has the power to move it forward or send it into oblivion. Thus, committees are the heart of the legislative process and where the most significant work occurs. Members of the committee are given time to consider legislation and reflect on the good aspects of the bill as well as the bad, before it is moved to the floor for a vote. Therefore, becoming familiar with the committee system and being able to testify on behalf of or in opposition to a bill is your best chance to see the legislature do what you think needs to be done.