Of Law and Hot Dogs

Friday, February 1, 2013

Of Law and Hot Dogs

It has been said that there are two things in this world that you may not want to see: the making of hot dogs and the making of law. Unfortunately, there is some truth to this adage. However, when the process works as intended, you get great hot dogs and prudent laws.

Here in Indiana, our Legislature is working away, crafting bills that may someday become law. The process is an interesting one. Like so many things, a bill begins its journey as an idea. This idea may originate from a legislator’s personal experience, like a bill I had drafted to raise the speed limit of trucks on rural interstate highways. It may come from an idea generated by a constituent, a state agency, or perhaps a special interest lobby. Regardless, for an idea to move from someone’s head to being a bill, it needs to be nailed down in writing. This is done by attorneys from Indiana’s Legislative Services Agency (LSA) at the request of legislators in the weeks leading up to session.

Once a bill is drafted by LSA, a final decision is made by the legislator to decide if the bill is worth filing. Because Indiana is a part-time Legislature, and unless extraordinary circumstances are in play, a member of the House is limited to authoring a maximum of 10 bills in the long legislative session (odd numbered year) and five bills in the short session (even numbered year). This is the first check on weeding out unnecessary bills – with limits in play, if a bill is of minimum value, it is unlikely to be filed. A bill must be filed before or just after the start of session.

Filed bills are then assigned by the Speaker of the House to a committee. Given that 1,000 bills or so are introduced in the long session, committee chairman have some discretion over what bills move on to the next stage and are heard by the whole committee. This is yet another check in the system. Thus, members of the House, lobbyists and constituents work hard to ensure that bills they care about will be heard, and often the opposite, to see to it that a committee chairman will refuse to set a hearing, i.e., kill the bill.

Bills heard in a committee may be amended and, if the bill survives a vote, it is referred back to the full House of Representatives. This appearance in the full House is the “Second Reading” of a bill. At this stage, the bill may again be amended by any member, but all the amendments must be approved by a vote. Once a bill is finished, it will be considered on a later date for final passage, the “Third Reading,” where members vote on the entire bill including any amendments.

If approved, it is sent to the Indiana Senate to go through the same process. Likewise, bills that originated in the Senate are passed to the House. If the House and Senate each pass the other’s bills with changes, then a special conference committee is appointed to work out the differences.

If both the House and Senate pass an identical bill, it is sent to the Governor for signature. Interestingly, unlike in our federal system, if the Governor vetoes a bill it may be overridden by a simple majority of the House and Senate.

All through this process, members of the House and Senate, various lobbying groups, government agencies and members of the public work to ensure that only the best legislation makes it through the process. The situation may frustrate authors of bills or other stakeholders, but in the end, the system seems to work. Equally important, in a state where we have a part-time Legislature and in a nation where we value the input of all citizens, it is hard to conceive of a better approach.

The key, like in making hot dogs, is to ensure that we use quality ingredients and that the final product is something we all value. For this process to be accurate and efficient, constituent input is crucial. I look forward to hearing from you.

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State Rep. Tom Washburne serves as Vice Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He also serves on the Financial Institutions Committee and the Select Committee on Government Reduction. Rep. Washburne represents the entirety of Gibson County and portions of Knox, Pike, Vanderburgh and Posey counties.