Note** This text was written for BLET Division Legislative Representatives, but is instructive for all, and the process follows a similar pattern at both the federal and state levels.
All State Legislatures have much in common, but procedures vary on a state-by-state basis. Due to these variances, research the legislative process in your state carefully. Your State Legislative Board Chairman will be able to assist you.
The legislative working days in each state legislature's session differ from state to state. In many states, the legislature convenes in early January and adjourns in late spring or early summer, while others convene in mid-spring. Some states have several special sessions during the year, while others are in session 30 or 60 days a year or every other year.
Every member of the legislature is assigned to one or more committees, either by the Speaker of the House or the President Pro Tem of the Senate. The political party in the majority of that particular house has a majority of its members assigned to the committees. Once a bill has been assigned to a committee, the next step in the legislative process consists of holding hearings before the committee to determine the merit of the bill. In some states, consideration of a bill is decided by the chairman of the committee, who has the sole power to make that determination. In some states, committee meetings are open to the public; while in others, the meetings are closed.
In those legislatures where every bill is given an open committee hearing, the hearing usually begins with the sponsor of the bill testifying in support of it and explaining why the passage of the bill would correct a problem. Then other witnesses, who may include other legislators, public officials, lobbyists and ordinary citizens, are given the chance to testify for or against the bill for a short period of time. When all the testimony is completed, the committee will vote on whether to "report" the bill out to the full chamber for its consideration. The committee, upon recommending "do pass" or "do not pass", acts as a guide for the other members.
In some legislative committees, the committee can hold the bill or refer it to another committee for study. This is another way of "killing a bill" in committee, because all bills held by a committee die after a certain amount of time. Usually, the Speaker's office or the Senate's President Pro Tem will send each committee chairman a notice giving him or her a bill cut-off date. Bills held in committee die after this date.
It is important to understand the dynamics that underlie the operations of the committee system. The role of the Chairman is of particular importance. He or she is appointed by the majority leadership of the legislature and this appointment usually goes to senior members of the majority party who are closely aligned with the leadership. Thus, committee chairmen often speak not only for themselves and their constituents, but also for the majority leadership of their respective chamber. Because of their power to appoint committee chairmen, along with other reasons, the leaders of every legislature are obviously the most important and powerful members of the legislature. It is of major importance from the labor lobbyist's point of view to have the leadership on your side or, at least, neutral on the issue.
Among committee members, some are generally far more influential than others. They have developed a special expertise on the subjects covered by the bill and other committee members listen to their presentations for guidance. Legislators, as a rule, often try to accommodate their friends and colleagues in the legislature. Thus, if the sponsor of the bill is a committee member or tells other members that the passage of the bill is particularly important to him or her, the committee member will cast his or her vote for personal reasons having nothing to do with the merits of the bill. Such political favors are not usually forgotten and often incur a political obligation on the sponsor in the future. When another member is sponsoring a particular bill and is looking for support, the member can call in the "political debt" that is owed.
Because the committee hearing on a bill is essential to the bill's survival, the testimony that is given is often the make-or-break point. The best and most convincing testimony is sometimes not enough to get the job done. The number of people or organizations testifying for or against a bill and the status of those organizations are often the key to getting a bill passed. If a coalition of parties can be built, and convinced to testify at the hearing, the chances of getting the bill out of committee greatly increase. Legislators are compelled to seriously consider the testimony of public safety organizations such as firefighters, state patrol, local police, emergency response agencies, departments of state government, and other organizations which the public puts their trust in. Getting your allies on board early and explaining the importance of the bill is key to its passage.
Compromise is invaluable in the legislative process. In many cases, a bill that is unacceptable to a majority of the committee can be made acceptable by negotiating a compromise on some of its provisions. Knowing when and how to compromise on a bill requires not only full knowledge of the subject matter of the bill, but also a sense of how strong the other side is and how far it is willing to go to achieve the compromise. If you are in a coalition with one or more groups, make your position clear regarding you ability or inability to compromise and who may authorize any compromise.
Once a compromise is agreed upon, it is usually assumed that those persons and/or groups who took part will support the bill for the remainder of the legislative process. It is easier to negotiate compromise while a bill is still in committee rather than wait until after the bill has been reported to the floor. Another key factor, which should always be followed, is to have the sponsor of the bill be a co-spokesperson to help negotiate the compromise.
In some states, it is common for bills to be amended from the floor, while in others, this rarely occurs. In some states, it is possible for opponents of a bill to filibuster the bill to death or use other parliamentary tactics to keep it from ever coming to a vote, while in other states, the debate and parliamentary maneuvering is tightly controlled by the leadership. For those who are lobbying for or against a bill, it is essential to know whether these tactics are possible in the state, it is also extremely important to keep in touch daily with the sponsor of the bill. This will provide timely information regarding when the bill will be brought up, what the prospects for the vote will be, and the important swing votes.
At this stage of the legislative process and before the bill is called up on the legislative calendar, it is important to lobby other legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, for the passage of the bill. Because the opponents will also have one last chance to lobby against the bill, this is a critical time. Often if a bill is defeated the first time, it can be reconsidered. It is not at all uncommon for bills that were defeated the first time to come back and be passed the second time. If a bill is defeated in one chamber, it is usually dead for that session.
Moreover, it is important to realize that in many states, one chamber of the legislature will pass a bill -- usually for political reasons -- on the clear understanding that it will be killed in the other. These understandings are rarely admitted or publicly reported and are difficult for the lobbyist to discover.
The political process doesn't stop at the state house door, however. After a bill is passed by both houses of the legislature, it must still receive the signature of the governor before it becomes law. This process is still fraught with peril. However, a governor that is friendly to labor issues, or has been helped with contributions to his or her campaign, is often receptive to signing bills that will help our organization. Loyalty is appreciated in politics and it runs both ways.
What motivates a legislator to vote the way he or she does? Although it is often tempting to label legislators and to assume they will respond in a certain fashion on the most controversial issues, most of them usually want to do the right thing -- to act responsibly on legislation. This demonstrates that the best interests of their constituents are being served. As with anyone who has to make difficult decisions, many important and often conflicting factors are considered when a legislator makes a decision to cast his or her vote on a controversial issue.
With less controversial issues, it is easier for the legislator to make a decision. However, on such issues it is more likely that a legislator's decision may be motivated by personal self-interests or the interests of specific groups to which the legislator is particularly beholden. In the vast majority of cases, including occasions where the Legislator is a sponsor of your bill, the Legislator's vote should not be taken for granted. You should have a clear understanding with him, backed by convincing evidence that he is doing the right thing.