Activism requires human action. Many armchair activists fall into the relative comfort of keyboard warfare on social media platforms. With great fervency and zeal, they take controversial positions and make provocative statements, defending their viewpoints by arguing incessantly with people who were never going to be swayed from the beginning. Most of us know folks like this. Some of us might even be these folks on occasion.

I mean, I get it. I understand the importance of messaging. We want to communicate and spread the tenets, principles and philosophies we so passionately believe. We feel a sense of obligation to message on behalf of liberty It becomes easy to get sucked into discussions and debates. Admittedly, there’s a small chance you might help a wayward friend get “woke.” In reality, there is a higher probability that you’ll only walk away with elevated blood pressure.

If you have a passion for activism, don’t allow it to get lost the comment thread wasteland of social media. Instead, try inserting yourself into an issue that you care deeply about at the state or local level.

Local and state arenas are prime hunting grounds for us to affect the most change and push back against oversized, overreaching government. This is where we can influence state governments to ignore or nullify unconstitutional federal laws. Evidence of this has recently been demonstrated in some of the advances made with regard to marijuana and warrantless surveillance.

In order to obtain the kind of change we desire, it will require more than online debate. It will require actual human involvement. It will mean taking the passion and dedication we demonstrate online and joining them with tangible effort, work and planning in order to move the dial toward liberty. Accordingly, there are some tools that need to employ to achieve real results, including moving bills through state legislatures. To do that, we need to understand how legislation becomes law.

By saying “how a bill becomes a law,” I’m not referring to the classic  Schoolhouse Rock cartoon. I’m talking about having an intimate, working knowledge of the legislative process. 

You will find similarities from state to state, however, there are some procedural variations from one state to the next. In what follows, I will provide a general overview of how state legislative processes function. It is my hope that this overview can be a useful tool to those who hope to apply the wonders of nullification in their own home state.

Legislation – A Bill Isn’t Always Just A Bill.

A bill is a proposal for enacting a new law, amending an existing law, repealing of existing law, or for the appropriation of public money. Other types of bills include resolutions and legislation initiates the process to amend the state constitution. 

A resolution is a formal legislative document expressing the opinion or sentiment of one or both legislative chambers. Resolutions generally don’t carry the force of law and in many states do not require the signature of the governor.

Each state has its own process for enacting constitutional amendments.

And Now A Word From Our Sponsor…

Bills start as ideas. Bill language can come from businesses, lobbyists, special interest groups, constituents, or from the legislators themselves.

Before a bill can be introduced for consideration, it must first be sponsored. Legislation must have at least one primary sponsor and can usually have any number of cosponsors. Cosponsors are generally not required, but having them is a sign of support from within the legislative body.

Bipartisan sponsorship indicates that legislators are willing to come across the aisle to work with opposition counterparts on points of common interest. Conversely, partisan sponsorship might demonstrate a bill that is important to a particular party’s agenda, platform or voter base. Colleagues from within the same party may dogpile onto a bill of this nature. Come election time, politicians love to be able to tell the folks back home about all the things they did for them while at the capital. Having their names attached to legislation can usually be spun up in the eyes of their voter base.

Some states also allow a bill to be sponsored by a House or Senate committee. In some cases, such as in Alaska, a bill can even be introduced by the governor through the Rules Committee.

Allow Me To Introduce…Bill

Once sponsored, a bill can be officially introduced. In most cases, this involves submission to the chamber clerk (or similar administrative office) where it is assigned a number. In some instances, as required by state law, the bill’s number, title and primary sponsor are recorded in the House or Senate journals. More often, the bill is read by number, title and sponsor on the open floor of the respective chamber it is being introduced to.

Once read and/or entered, the bill is referred to the appropriate standing committee depending on the bill’s subject matter. Committees are very important to legislators. They have committees for everything. Some legislatures even have a Committee On Committees — that is a committee that decides which committee receives the bill.

Once assigned to a committee, the chairperson has a great deal of control over the future of the legislation. The chair generally determines whether or not a bill will receive a hearing and a vote. In some states, the chairperson can assign the bill to a subcommittee to review, debate and discuss the bill and report its conclusions to the full body. A committee chair can kill legislation simply by refusing to give it a hearing.

Committees normally dispatch their duties in five different ways.

  • Report the bill favorably with recommendations to amend or otherwise.
  • Send it to the floor for debate without recommendations.
  • Report the bill unfavorably.
  • Postpone the bill indefinitely.
  • Take no action/issue no report-the bill fails.

Other duties powers and responsibilities of the committee include:

  • Holding public hearings for constituents, state agency representatives, and legislators for all bills it wishes to consider.
  • Amending the bill
  • Combining the bill with other bills.
  • Referring the legislation to a different committee.

Some states have a single committee process. In other states, the bill has to pass multiple committees before moving to the full House or Senate.

Read Me

Once a bill passes through all of its required committees, it is placed on the House or Senate calendar for further action. The calendar lists bills that are eligible for debate. A bill considered important may be brought up for consideration by the chamber ahead of the other bills listed before it on the calendar.  The Speaker of the House and President of the Senate (some states use different titles) generally control which bills make it to the floor for a debate and vote. 

It Seems To Be Passing…Like A Kidney Stone

Upon reaching it’s specifically assigned day, a motion can be made (usually by the majority floor leader) for the bill to be taken from the Orders of the Day, read for the third time by title only and placed upon its passage. If the motion carries, the floor is open for debate and amendments. Keep in mind that amendments can take the form of deletions as well as additions. A bill, in its original form, can take on a completely different (if not entirely unrecognizable) look and meaning as this process unfolds. If through debate, the chamber concludes a bill needs to be sent back to a committee, they will vote to do so and await the next committee report. If no further committee work is required and debates and amendments have been concluded, a final vote on the bill is taken. A majority vote of the members present and voting is usually enough to pass the bill.

So, Pass Or Fail, What Happens Next?

If a bill is defeated, it is not likely to receive another vote. It is essentially dead at that point. Some states have rules in place that allow a defeated bill to be brought up for reconsideration, but this does not happen very often.

After the bill passes one chamber, it moves to the other and goes through pretty much the same process.

Both chambers must agree on the final form of the bill. If the second chamber passes an amended version of the bill, it will go back to the originating chamber for concurrence. If the originating chamber fails to concur with amendments, the legislation will go to a conference committee. Conference committees are comprised of both senators and representatives and are designed to overcome objections and differences through compromise. Changes agreed to by this committee are subject to the approval of both chambers. If one or both chambers rejects the changes, the bill fails. If the bill passes both chambers, it is checked very carefully to ensure that all wording is correct, then it is signed by the presiding officers of both chambers and passed on to the governor.

A Law Is Born

In most states, the governor can do one of three things with a bill and has a limited amount of time in which to act. The amount of time varies, depending on a number of factors.

  • Sign it.
  • Veto it.
  • Take no action.

The bill becomes a law if the governor signs it. Additionally, in most states, if the governor takes no action within the allotted time, the bill becomes law. But in some states, a governor can “pocket-veto” a bill by taking no action. In that case, the bill is dead. 

In most state, if the governor vetoes the bill, it is returned to the chamber from which it originated and the legislature can attempt to override the governor’s veto. It usually requires a 2/3 majority vote to override (3/4 in some states). If successful, the bill is then sent to the other chamber and the same test is applied. If both chambers vote to overturn the veto, the bill becomes law. 

Knowing the legislative processes in your state will give you a better sense of how to work within the state’s political system to move legislation forward. This is crucial knowledge to have as you work to affect change in your community.

If you would like to learn more about the specific legislative process in your state, StateScape has a delightful compendium of all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico.

Clay Davis