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Short answer: It should be easy, but it’s not.
Article 1, Section 5, Clause 2 of the Constitution states: “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings….” Because of this clause, we have different procedures in each house of Congress which determine how a bill will be handled in that chamber. Both the rules of the House and those of the Senate are a matter of public record and may be downloaded from the respective chamber’s website. There are both unique and common elements of the rules. For instance, House Rule XII uniquely requires that every bill contain a paragraph describing the claimed constitutional authority for the action the bill proposes. One would think this provision would deter a Congressman or Congresswoman from exceeding the limited and enumerated powers which the Constitution provides to the legislative branch, but one would be wrong.
When Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) proposed a bill that would create a “Department of Peace,” he famously cited the Preamble’s goal of “ensur[ing] Domestic Tranquility” as his authority. Unfortunately for Rep. Kucinich, the Constitution’s Preamble does not grant power to any branch of government; the government has no explicit power to ensure “domestic tranquility,” it remains only a goal of the overall document. To be sure, there are other powers explicitly granted to the Congress, such as the power to call forth the militia to “suppress Insurrections” that would serve this end, but, sadly, domestic tranquility will have to be achieved without Rep. Kucinich’s Department of Peace. Representative Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) cited the Constitution’s Commerce Clause as the authority for his H.R. 1127, a bill “to encourage and ensure the use of safe football helmets.” What Pascrell’s proposal had to do with interstate commerce was left unsaid.
The authors of House Rule XII had noble intent, but they presumed the people would elect Representatives who would take the rule seriously.
Over in the Senate we find the infamous “Filibuster Rule,” which requires the agreement of “3/5 of the Senators” (normally 60) before debate on a bill can be ended. When neither of the two major parties enjoys a 60+ majority, the “Cloture Rule,” as it is also called, provides a convenient partisan blocking mechanism. This rule was amended recently to expedite certain presidential nominations that were being stonewalled by one party.
Aside these and a few other differences, the basic process for getting a bill to the President’s desk for signature is essentially the same. Some Congressmen place simplified descriptions of the process on their websites. In brief, the bill is proposed by an individual member after he or she has either drafted it or had it provided by a constituent or lobbying group. The bill is normally then sent to a Committee for consideration in the Chamber in which it was first introduced. Depending on the bill’s complexity, it may be further referred to one or more subcommittees. It is a poorly kept “secret” that bills lacking widespread popularity are sent to sub-committees to “die,” never to be put to a committee vote, let alone a floor vote. For instance, of the thousands of constitutional amendments proposed over the years few ever made it to a floor vote and only 33 were ever sent to the states for ratification.
The committee may modify the bill’s wording after public hearings to improve its chance of surviving a floor vote and then they must pass it with a majority vote of the committee. The bill is then sent to the majority leader of the originating chamber to be put on the chamber’s calendar for a vote of the entire chamber. Here is another weakness in the process; the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority leader enjoy great power over what goes on their chamber’s calendar. Both bills originating in their chamber or coming from the other chamber after a successful vote may languish for a very long time before appearing on the calendar; or they may never appear on the calendar. There are periodic complaints over this practice.
Presuming a bill passes with a majority vote of each chamber, and any differences between the two versions of the bill have been resolved in a Conference Committee, the bill is sent to the President.
But here we must pause for a history lesson.
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson complained in his famous declaration that King George III had “refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” Laws duly passed by the colonial legislatures and sent to the King often never received his signature and thus were never put into effect. Some of these bills were no doubt “wholesome and necessary.” The Framers of 1787 sought to solve this problem. They set out to ensure the “people’s voice,” as reflected in the actions of their representatives, would never be muted.
Our constitution therefore does not require the President give his “assent” to a bill, at least not explicitly, before it becomes a law. Many Americans erroneously believe the President must sign a bill before it becomes a law. Not so. He may sign it if he agrees with its purpose, or he may veto the bill. He may also let it become law without his signature. This will occur automatically 10 days after the bill has been presented to him (not counting Sundays, when the President was expected to be in church). One caveat, if a bill is presented to the President and he does not have a full 10 days to consider it before Congress adjourns, it does not become law, but suffers what is called a “pocket veto.”
One final note: According to Article 2, Section 2, the President is required to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed;” i.e., he must carry out the “will of the people” as expressed in the new law passed by Congress, every part of it. But what happens if the President objects to one teeny-weeny provision in a 2000+ page bill. Must he veto the bill in its entirety over this minor flaw? Perhaps he feels the provision exceeds the power of Congress or infringes upon executive privilege. Enter: Signing Statements.
Signing Statements date back to 5th President James Monroe. Although originally used as ways to express great satisfaction in signing a particular piece of legislation, today they provide the President the opportunity to express reservations over certain provisions of a bill without having to veto the entire thing. Deputy Assistant Attorney General and future Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito raised quite a stir when he published an 1986 memo entitled: “Using Presidential Signing Statement[s] to Make Fuller Use of the President’s Constitutionally Assigned Role in the Process of Enacting Law” in which he stated bluntly that Presidential Signing Statements could be used to “increase the power of the Executive to shape the law.”
“Getting a bill from introduction in Congress to the President’s desk” is clearly not as easy as it could be or should be. We have the rules of Congress to blame for that; and as long as the Constitution gives Congress the complete power to compose their rules as they see fit, there is little hope for change any time soon. If the American people want streamlined procedures for passing legislation, they must demand it of Congress. Concerted demands will be heard. But do the American people ever act in concert? Not often. The only remedy which remains is to amend the Constitution in such a way that an expedited legislative procedure results. Congress, once again, is unlikely to ever propose an amendment which reduces in any way their power over legislation; thus it devolves to the people, through an Article V convention, to propose an amendment which would enact such a change.
If you want an easy process for getting legislation to the President’s desk, there is work to do.
Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people. CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes a weekly essay: Constitutional Corner which is published on multiple websites, and hosts a weekly radio show: “We the People, the Constitution Matters” on WFYL AM1140. Gary has also begun performing reenactments of James Madison and speaking with public and private school students about Madison’s role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and Constitution. Gary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, onFacebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).