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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.

Read all blog posts here, or subscribe to our RSS feed to keep up with what’s really happening in Congress.

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Comments

Displaying 1-30 of 40 total comments.

  • oderintdummetuant 08/25/2009 11:50am

    You know Donny, this is literally the best piece I’ve ever read from you. Not knocking your work, but this particular blog is completely devoid of partisanship. I understand that some partisanship in your blog is probably necessary to evoke emotions from readers so they get involved and open some discussion. The numerous bills that go nowhere and more importantly that people may get incensed about do have their place in discussions. H.R. 45 and H.J. Res 5 are important if for no other reason than to let voters know their elected officials opinions on these topics because like you said, “Nobody is going to introduce a bill they don’t believe in”. Well written Donny and appreciated.

  • Moderated Comment

  • Anonymous 08/25/2009 4:08pm
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    + -5

    Any member of the Senate or the H of representatives who having sworn to uphold the Constitution proposes a Bill that is unconstitutional, should be stripped of their US citizenship and sent to a communist country for treason!

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    Anonymous 10/06/2009 8:05pm

    Your opinion of what is constitutional needs a bit of work. Do you have a degree in Constitutional Law? Did the people who introduced legislation to have 3/5ths of a human provision stricken from the constitution act unpatriotically? The second amendment says we have the right to a well ordered militia and to bear arms accordingly Our right to bear arms outside of the militia was introduced as legislation by….could it be …unpatriotic americans?

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    deadeye303 11/14/2009 10:15am

    “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” is the preamble to “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” which is the actual right affirmed by the second amendment. This, of course, is the subject of much argument and the excuse for the anti-self-defense forces for attempting to disarm us for their true purpose, to ensure their political power.

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    snappy69 03/21/2010 1:53pm

    ABSOLUTELY! We the people, lend OUR power to the elected representatives not the other way around. This American is sick and tired of the nonsense (and in some instances TREASON) that is running rampant on capitol hill. As I review many of the “hot” bills being debated it is ABUNDANTLY clear that several of them do not have public support. So why aren’t they DOA?

    I’ll tell you why. Because our elected representatives aren’t representing the people but instead have chosen to support an oligarchy. It is high time that many of them were replaced with common men and women who will simply listen to their constituency and vote accordingly.

  • Anonymous 08/26/2009 10:22am

    @ Anonymous: Any bill which proposes a Constitutional Ammendment is, by very definition, both ‘unconstitutional’ (in that it proposes a ‘rewrite’ of the constitution) and ‘constitutional’ (in that the process is part of the written constitution)!

    @ Donny: I always loved School House Rock! :-)

    TJ

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    columbianna 08/28/2009 5:12am

    I don’t agree. I think Obama’s heart is in the right place and that he really wants to help Americans and America. I do agree that drastic change needs to take place in Washington. I think a complete house-cleaning is in order and to start fresh with a whole new Congress and to make sure anyone who is voted in to office knows up front that the American people aren’t going to take any more bullcrap from Washington, whether they are Democrat or Republican and if they can’t abide by what we the people say, then hit the road! Get them out of there!

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    lfandja 09/12/2009 10:37am

    I agree, our public servants have promoted themselves from public servents to celebraties and could careless about the people who elect them. Besides many of our dignitaries are common thieves, perverts, tas cheats, serious criminals that hide money in their freezer, solicit illicit sex in a public bathroom, use their apartment as a brothel for homosesuals, do not pay their income tax and a multitude of petty criminals who accept kickbacks in return for favors many of which are undoubtedly illegal and for which we insignificant little people would most likely go to jail. For the above reasons I and many others have decided to vote against all incumbents, Democrats or Republicans at least in the upcoming elections.

  • Anonymous 08/29/2009 7:58am

    Very informative – thank you for eloquently describing the, at times, elusive mechanics of Congress!!

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    Anonymous 08/29/2009 10:26am
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    + -3

    if you think obamas heart is in the right place,you have taken alot of LSD

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    Anonymous 09/23/2009 9:43am
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    + -2

    What a great idea. I think I will do that too.

  • Anonymous 08/29/2009 12:57pm

    Wow. I’m impressed. Even if you people are “radical’s”. Keep it coming.

  • Anonymous 08/29/2009 7:15pm

    Last year, while prowling the halls of Congress lobbying as a private citizen, I happened to notice in one office (Hoyer’s, I think), a selection of government publications for citizens to take with them for free.

    I grabbed a copy of “How Our Laws are Made” from 2003 (2007 edition available) that answers in great detail how bills get through the process (or, as you say, more likely don’t) in Washington.

    When you referred to “the hopper” it rang a bell from my reading of this booklet – from which I created a flowchart to make the process clearer to myself. The booklet is about 60 pages long and is available at bookstore.gpo.gov for $5.50

    Thank you for your very concise description of part of the process. For those who want the nitty gritty, get this booklet.

  • Moderated Comment

  • Anonymous 09/01/2009 3:46am
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    + -1

    There is an exception to your statement that no one will enter a bill they don’t believe in. MONEY!! Some of these critters will introduce a bum bill because some deep pocketed special interest or advocacy group wants it. The member knows it’s a DOA and doesn’t care. The money still spends.

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  • Anonymous 09/07/2009 12:39pm

    I am curious — how much does each “going nowhere” bill initiation cost in administration in the initiating Legislature’s office; in the Congressional administration office(s); in the respective committee/subcommittee administration office(s); etc etc. Since it seems that there are some 10,000 “going nowhere” bills, our elected officials are creating a lot of expense for no reason. Does the Congressional Budget Office know the cost of these “going nowhere” bills? Makes a person want to start over with our Legislative bodies.

  • Anonymous 09/09/2009 6:43am

    It’s a good article – no question, But isn’t it an attitude of: “it won’t matter anyway” that has and will continue to cause this country so much heartache? I believe anything that has been submitted to become a law, or for that matter anyone who steps into the light to govern, should (and must) be taken seriously. If we keep making excuses and downplaying…we may wake up in a country full of laws that couldn’t possibly pass…and rulers – who couldn’t possibly win…

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  • Anonymous 09/10/2009 4:09am
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    + -1

    If the “Leaders” of this country would apply some logic to their actions, We may be able to recover from this state of the nation. Here is a suggestion:
    Take the military that are being asked to leave the military, and use them to export illegal aliens who are holding down jobs our citizens need, who are not paying taxes, and eating up our welfare and medical services. then lock off the boarders to stop the influx of illgegal aliens. And, just because a person was born on US soil, should not automatically make them a citizen. One parent should be a US citizen for that to apply. If they want to become a citizen, use the proper channels. After all, you cant breed a turkey with a turkey and get an Eagle!!!

  • Anonymous 09/12/2009 6:14am

    This country is so screwed up. I am sad for the Americans who call this country home. The complete disregard for honesty along with the constant corruption in politics makes me ashamed to admit I am American. When I read about the complete and total waste of my money for stupid reasons, it is just plain thivery by the politicians. Want to talk about health insurance. OK, here’s what I want, I want the same insurance Obama has, thats all, just as good as he gets.

  • Anonymous 09/13/2009 7:20am
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    + -1

    Politicians – real quick – exempt from the health care they want us to have, exempt from gun laws, exempt from Social Securtiy, anymore? Oh forgot, exempt from real work (former Sen. Kennedy and others)

  • Anonymous 09/15/2009 10:00am

    What a waste of time. What a waste of money.

  • Anonymous 09/15/2009 3:52pm
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    + -1

    As a Patriot we need to take back our Government and stop these morons who have no moral fiber in their beings. If you don’t see it then let me spell it out for you. No Democracy aka “Representative Republic” has ever survived. These are facts! If we want our Republic to survive another 250- 500 years we need to act now. That means using the government system we have to impeach, recall, and try “trials” for treason/sedition those who disregard our Constitutional laws. We have tons of laws that do nothing but extort our freedoms and our wealth; what little some of us have and its time we take back something that belongs to us “We the People!”. Perhaps its sensible to have States seceding like Texas, Montana, Kansas, and Tennessee and a rebellion and/or revolution is well past its time.

    Col Gadsden
    Patriot
    USA

  • Anonymous 09/17/2009 4:24am
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    + -1

    Col Gadsden, i couldn’t agree with you more! please e-mail me soo we can have furthure communication about this, thundersnake2@aol.com
    thank you!

    now to the post.
    while the gov. is waisting all of our hard earned money ill be spending my money on guns and ammo before i am not “aloud” to buy them any more. now if you think that you pass these kinda laws then the only guns that will be in the america is the ones that the people come over from the border and the drug dealers….

  • Anonymous 09/21/2009 4:10pm
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    + -1

    If you want an education, read 1984 written by Mr Orwell in 1947. Talking about big brother and how he will be looking out for us. If you really believe that….

  • jeffharris 10/01/2009 5:18am

    You shouldn’t hate America – you should love it. Problem is, with politicians like this and these type of bills being proposed and many passed, we are not America anymore. Love America and hope she returns someday.

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