Editor’s Note: Political writer Howard Fischer has covered the Arizona Legislature since 1982. He offers a somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at how the process works – or does not, as the case may be.
So you think you know how a bill becomes law?
Well, it isn’t exactly the process from the Schoolhouse Rock song, “I’m just a bill on Capitol Hill.”
Yes, there are a House, a Senate and a governor.
And, yes, there are committees and floor debates.
But what actually happens at the Arizona Capitol? It ain’t textbook.
What the textbook says: A constituent goes to a legislator and suggests a change in law to deal with a problem.
How it happens in the real world: Many more bills come from – and are actually written by – special interests and their lobbyists, people who may have helped elect the lawmaker who agreed to put his or her name on it.
Textbook: The Senate president or House speaker assigns the bill to an appropriate committee for a hearing.
Real world: If the president or speaker doesn’t like the proposal it gets assigned to a committee – or two or three – where is it likely to die. Conversely, a bill that leadership wants will be put into a friendly committee even if it belongs somewhere else.
Textbook: The committee chair schedules each bill for a hearing and then takes extensive testimony from all sides and carefully weighs the merits of each proposal.
Real world: The committee chair can kill a measure simply by refusing to hear it. Few bills by Democrats are heard in the Arizona Legislature. And most measures get little more than a cursory review, with testimony often limited to a few minutes per speaker and committees approving a dozen or more bills within a few hours.
Textbook: During floor debate, amendments are proposed by those seeking to improve the legislation.
Real world: Amendments are just as often offered by foes of the original measure to undermine the bill – or even embarrass other legislators who have to go on record on a controversial issue with a forced roll-call vote.
Textbook: If a bill fails to get the votes, that’s the end of it for the session.
Real world: Except when it’s sponsored by a member of the majority party who will then find a way to resurrect it by attaching the provision onto another bill that has not yet been to committee or the floor.
Textbook: When there are differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, the final version is weighed and debated by members of a conference committee.
Real world: The fix usually is in before the conference committee even meets. That’s because the House speaker and the Senate president determine who serves on the committee and picks people who will support the version desired by leadership.
Textbook: Any measure that survives then goes to the governor who signs or vetoes it based solely on what is sound public policy.
Real world: Or what caters to his or her base or contributors.