The Vast Majority of Bills Go Nowhere
August 25, 2009 - by Donny Shaw
Every once in a while we get an email from someone concerned about some obscure bill they have found on OpenCongress that they think poses a direct threat to their freedoms and liberties. Common examples include H.R.45, a bill to establish a nation-wide firearms licensing system, and H.J.Res.5, a bill to repeal presidential term limits. They cite these bills as evidence that Congress is trying to take away their guns, or that Congress is trying to make Obama king for life.
But this kind of analysis is based on a misunderstanding of what bills in Congress are. Each of the 535 members of Congress can propose any kind of bill they want. They don’t need consent or support from anyone – they just drop a piece of legislation in a box, called “the hopper,” and congressional workers assign it an official bill number and file it away with all the others bills. The only test a proposal has to pass before becoming a bill in Congress is the judgment of the individual member of Congress who introduced it.
The vast majority of bills are essentially dead upon arrival. In any given two-year session of Congress, ten-thousand or more bills are introduced. But only about 4 percent of them become law. Take away bills that do things like naming post offices and designating days of the year as commemorative holidays and it’s probably more like one percent.
Sunlight Labs has done an analysis of what happened to all the bills that were introduced in the previous session of Congress (110th session). Of the 11,056 bills that were introduced, 9,904, were referred to a committee by default, never saw any action, and died there.
So, why do people introduce bills that have no chance of becoming law? Maybe they are addressing concerns that are unique to their district. For example, a draconian gun-control law probably makes more sense in inner-city Chicago than it does in rural New Hampshire. Or perhaps they just trying to put new ideas out into the public discourse. Or perhaps they want to take a radical stance on an issue as a purely political tactic, to show their constituents that they are “serious” about something. Nobody is going to introduce a bill they don’t believe in, but they might introduce a bill that nobody but them will get behind.
It’s hard to know sometimes what is a viable bill that might be considered, and what is a bill that will just die in committee. Here are a few metrics you can use to make a guess:
1) Co-sponsors – if the bill has zero co-sponsors, it probably isn’t viable. If it does have co-sponsors, especially if the list includes members of the leadership and committee chairmen, it probably has a chance of seeing some action. Bipartisanship in co-sponsor lists is a good sign that a bill is viable, especially if the bill is introduced by the minority party.
2) Actions – Bills go through dozens of “actions” before they become law. If the only actions you see for a bill are referrals to committees, for example on H.R. 45, it’s a sign that it’s probably not going anywhere. But if you see any other kinds of actions, like “forwarded by subcommittee to full committee by voice vote,” “hearings scheduled,” or “committee consideration and mark-up session held,” then the bill is starting to move and has a chance becoming law.
3) News and blogs – this is tricky, but can be useful. On OpenCongress you can see which bills are getting the most buzz in the news media and on the blogs. Now, it’s true that bills can get talked about a lot even if Congress isn’t actually considering them, but taken together with the metrics above, this can be helpful. For example, the bill H.R. 1207, to increase transparency of the Federal Reserve, doesn’t have much in the way of actions, but it has an impressive co-sponsor list and a ton of buzz in the blogs. This means there is grass roots energy around this bill which, coupled with the co-sponsors list, indicates that it could possibly see some movement.
With OpenCongress, you can track any bill with a free “My OpenCongress” account (register of log-in). On any bill page (like this one, for example) click “Track With MyOC” in the right-hand sidebar, and the bill will be added to your page of tracked items. Then you can subscribe by RSS or email to get an alert as soon as there is a new action, comment, blog post, or news article. See my page of tracked items to get a sense of how it works.