Washington Insider
How does a bill become a law?

There are many steps a bill must go through before a bill becomes a law. Each year thousands of pieces of legislation are passed, but only a couple of hundred bills become law. Of those bills that become law, the average amount of time between their introduction into Congress and its signature by the president is five years! Of course, some bills take longer to pass. Others pass very quickly.

Many factors determine how long it takes to pass a bill. One factor is the newness of the idea being proposed. When a Congressman introduces a bill with a new, unique idea for a federal law, it can take a long time before lawmakers warm to it. It must go through enough hearings, debates, public discussions and reports in the media before the public and members of Congress understand and feel comfortable supporting a new idea.

The bill to impose a fuel surcharge, HR 4441, has the benefit of being a concept that is far from new. Back when the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) existed, it instituted a fuel surcharge on several occasions when the price of fuel skyrocketed - starting in the 1970s. In fact, in 1974 Congress passed a law to force the ICC to act faster in instituting a fuel surcharge. Although there is no longer an ICC, the idea of a fuel surcharge continues in the industry. There are many motor carriers who have instituted a fuel surcharge this year to deal with fuel costs. A fuel surcharge is a well-established and successful solution to high fuel prices (for those who can get them).

Another factor that affects the speed at which legislation gets passed is the sense of urgency surrounding the problem it is introduced to solve. The greater the urgency and the more the need for the bill is demonstrated, the faster the legislative gears turn, and the sooner it could become law.

Today, the need to address the problems that high fuel prices cause truckers is very urgent. There have been trucker rallies in Washington, many news stories have been written or broadcast about the fuel crisis and truck drivers and Congress has been receiving phone calls and letters about the issue. Most of that publicity, though, happened several months ago. If congress hears nothing about the problem, it will assume that the problem has gone away. It will take the continued communication of constituents to give Congress the sense of urgency and need in the country for a legislative solution. It will really take thousands of phone calls, letters, e-mails and visits to congressional offices over several weeks and maybe several months to keep the issue alive.

The long and winding legislative road through Congress

For a transportation bill to become a law, it must go through several steps before becoming law, and for HR 4441, we are still in the early stages. The accompanying chart demonstrates the flow of the process that HR 4441 will have to go through. Each of the steps is described below.

The bill is introduced to the House of Representatives.

The bill is assigned to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

The Committee refers the bill to the Ground Transportation Subcommittee.

Hearings are held to investigate the issue. This can happen before or after a bill in introduced. In the case of HR 4441, hearings were held in March on the general topic of the fuel crisis. Legislation was drafted over the following two months and introduced in early May. Another hearing was then held specifically on the fuel surcharge proposal of HR 4441. At each hearing, the committee or subcommittee tries to invite witnesses who can provide testimony representing a variety of viewpoints on the issue. For the hearing to discuss HR 4441, OOIDA, an owner-operator, and a small fleet owner testified for the bill, and two shippers associations (National Industrial Traffic League and National Association of Small Shipper and a broker association (The Transportation Intermediaries Association) spoke against the legislation. (See complete Land Land coverage on page 24.)

The subcommittee meets in a "markup" in order to debate the legislation. At this time, any member of the subcommittee may offer an amendment to change or eliminate any part of the bill. At the end of the debate and a vote on each amendment offered, the subcommittee takes a vote on whether to recommend the bill to the full committee.

If the subcommittee votes to recommend the legislation, the full committee then meets for its "markup" of the bill. As with the subcommittee, the full committee debates and considers amendments. The full committee then votes on whether to recommend that the bill be forwarded for consideration by the full House of Representatives.

The full House of Representatives schedules the bill for its consideration. The House can debate and amend the bill, and then vote on its approval.

If the House does debate and approve the bill, one of three things can happen.

1. If the Senate has not been working on similar legislation, the bill would be sent to the Senate where it would have to go through all the steps that it went through in the House.

2. If the Senate already passed a bill that looks exactly like the one that passed in the House, the legislation can be sent to the President who can either sign the bill into law or veto it.

3. If the Senate already passed a bill that was similar but not exactly the same, then a conference committee made up of members from both the House and Senate come together to negotiate and reconcile differences between the two bills. When the conference agrees on one bill, it is sent back to the full House and the Senate for another vote. If the House and Senate both approve that one bill, it can then be sent to the president.

At any point in any of these steps the bill could die. Just because a bill is assigned to a committee does not mean that it has to act on it. The committee chairman could just decide to ignore it. Hundreds of bills are introduced and referred to each committee every year, and it is up to the committee chairman to decide which bills take priority and deserve the committee's time and consideration. If hearings are held on an issue or a bill, the committee could decide that there is not a problem or that no legislation is needed to fix a problem. If a bill gets to a subcommittee or full committee markup, a majority of the committee could vote against the bill and it dies right there. Even if a committee votes to approve the bill and recommends that it be sent to the full House of Representatives for a vote, there is no guarantee that the leaders of the House (the Speaker, Majority Leader, Majority Whip) will schedule the bill for debate and a vote before the full House. It could die waiting to be voted on. There are no guarantees that the entire Congress is going to get the chance to vote on a piece of legislation.

As you can tell, there are many hoops a bill must jump through in order to become law. Any one of these steps can prove the end of the legislation. It takes the constant communication of citizens who support the bill to get it passed. This process can take months to accomplish. The fuel surcharge legislation has already been in the works for several months. It will take a constant stream of phone calls and letters from citizens to make sure that their elected officials do not forget that the fuel price problem still exists and that there is a lot of support for a mandatory fuel surcharge.