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The Vast Majority of Bills Go Nowhere (Encore)

July 27, 2010 - by David Moore

Just a bill

Earlier today we noticed a slight uptick in attention (esp. on the Twitter commercial micro-publishing service) on a particular bill: H.R. 5741, the Universal National Service Act, introduced 7/15/10 and sponsored by Rep. Rangel (D-NY), with three official actions and zero cosponsors. The bill’s official short title is as follows: To require all persons in the United States between the ages of 18 and 42 to perform national service, either as a member of the uniformed services or in civilian service in furtherance of the national defense and homeland security, to authorize the induction of persons in the uniformed services during wartime to meet end-strength requirements of the uniformed services, and for other purposes.

Some commentators have taken to dubbing this the “Slave Bill”, which is inappropriate, and we wanted to add a strong corrective note of empirical context. For reference, please see in full this important blog post by our experienced blogger Donny Shaw from last year around this time: The Vast Majority of Bills Go Nowhere. Key excerpt:

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. …

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 … 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.

[Read whole piece.]

… all of this is to say that yes, bills in Congress are important. As we’ve outlined, legislation can have tremendous public policy implications. And the rules by which bills become laws are notoriously opaque and arcane, so it can indeed be difficult to know the status and likelihood of any given bill passing. This is, rightly, hugely frustrating. Congress is closed-off, and OpenCongress is directly working to change that (e.g., with our publicly-editable How Congress Works wiki, and our somewhat out-of-date but still-relevant About Congress page, and all our open-source code and free API). For starters and in very-reductive-brief our idea for reform consists of the following: full and immediate compliance with the 8 Principles of Open Government Data, full public financing of all federal campaigns, and a new Constitutional convention to enact even more sweeping comprehensive reforms. There are many others worth considering.

But in our system of representative democracy, Rep. Rangel has the right to merely introduce a national service bill, just as his colleagues (Democrats and Republicans both) have the right to use fair parliamentary procedure to critique it, stall it (transparently), endorse it, or introduce a proposal of their own. At this point in time, the relative lack of cosponsors, actions, and news coverage for H.R. 5741 signals to me that it’s like other controversial bills we’ve seen on OpenCongress that are highly unlikely to be politically viable in this Congress. In plain language, as best we can predict at this time, it’s unlikely to move in the House in anything resembling its current form. (This is intentionally leaving aside a debate about the merits of compulsory national service, which I’ll leave to other venues.) Even if it moved in the House (unlikely) and was passed (unlikely), it would still need to be passed by the Senate and signed by the President. Our system of checks-and-balances allows the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in as well. From this preponderance of evidence, and given the context of this particular bill in coming towards the end of the second session of the 111th Congress, it is irresponsible to portray this bill as a “Slave Bill” and to view it as a likely candidate for real-world public policy change. That’s more of an anti-empirical conspiracy theory than a defensible political analysis, and OpenCongress fights against false and misleading information in order to build public knowledge about Congress.

Yes we should pay attention to what Congress is doing at all times and demand full transparency, but no we shouldn’t fall into hysterical fearmongering. This bill, and others like it (say, from Rep. Ron Paul [R-TX]), are examples of how a healthy democracy engages in a mature discussion of national responsibilities and priorities. There is lots more to discuss about the pros and cons of compulsory national service, but that discussion (which can and should happen in public on the open Web) is not aided by overheated and anti-empirical rhetoric. So what’s a better way to keep track and watchdog the bills that really matter in Congress, as well as all the issues that matter to you personally? Try starting with our uniquely-compiled section of Hot Bills by Issue, then the bills Most in the News, and last in the Battle Royale, our one-of-a-kind forum of what bills and members are most-active with our open user community. For more ways you can use our free and open-source public resource for peer-to-peer education about legislation in Congress, see How To Use OpenCongress.  Questions, comments? Let us know what you think :: writeus at opencongress d0t org.

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