Bringing the Legislative Process to Life (real life, that is) for Students
by Elaine Larson
Every American citizen at some point in his or her education learns about how a bill becomes law in the U.S. legislative system. Often that lesson depicts a linear process starting with bill introduction and ending with the President’s signature. And often that lesson is less than stimulating to students. But anyone who watches the evening news or reads the daily newspaper observes a process that is actually less tidy, often more contentious, and significantly more dynamic than that linear model suggests.
According to Lee Hamilton, former Congressman and Director of The Center on Congress at Indiana University, “The standard textbook diagram of the basic legislative process…is accurate…as far as it goes. But to get a truer sense of how a bill really becomes law, you need to probe deeper. The actual process is far more dynamic, complex, and challenging. The standard diagram cannot possibly convey the obstacles, the strategies, the hard work, the defeats and victories, and the sheer excitement that attend the legislative process.”
In order to accurately describe this real-life process, played out daily in Congress, the Center on Congress has produced a comprehensive set of resources available free of charge on its Web site at http://centeroncongress.org. The Web site section on “The Legislative Process” covers the nuts and bolts of the process – tracking the various stages a bill goes through to become law.
1. Introduction: Describes what is included in this module and explains what students can expect to learn.
Lee Hamilton Summary and Links: Provides a concluding statement from Lee Hamilton, plus a list of resources and links to other relevant Web sites.
• How a Bill Really Becomes Law describes the process of how a bill becomes a law. Hamilton explains that the process is more dynamic than most textbooks describe it.
Congress Backgrounder: Legislative Process is a detailed, comprehensive section that includes a concise description of the stages of the legislative process plus background information on:
How a Bill Becomes a Law (Gr 5–8) - Examine Article I, Sections 1, 7, and 8, of the U.S. Constitution and discuss the authority and restrictions placed on the Congress in making laws.
The Role of the Executive Branch in the Lawmaking Process (Gr 5 –8) - Examine the role of the Executive Branch — the President — in the lawmaking process.
How Congress Works (Gr 5–8) - Examine the basic structure of the U.S. Congress and its role in our government. Students will then discuss if or how Congress might change the way it runs.
A Closer Look at the Lawmaking Process (Gr 9–12) - Examine the role that Congressional committees play in the process, learn how one’s Congressional representatives can influence legislation through their specific committee assignments, and discuss non-governmental factors in the legislative process.
Your Turn to Vote (Gr 9–12) - Learn about interactions within the legislature; about relationships among legislators, party leaders, and special interests and about the nitty-gritty of the legislative process.
Why Does Congress Work That Way? (Gr 9–12) - Analyze how the Constitution defines Congress and its role. Discuss how people think Congress should work and evaluate how effectively the legislative branch of the government is serving the purposes for which it was created.
To access these resources go to the Center on Congress Web site (http://centeroncongress.org) and click on “Learn About Congress.” Then click on “The Legislative Process” in the “Browse by Topic” listing.
According to Congressman Hamilton, “The workings of Congress may sometimes appear to be a tangled and contentious maze, but there is a basic framework within which the action takes place . . . In the end it is reasonably responsive to the expressed desires of the American people. And it has generally allowed our nation for more than 200 years to work through our differences peaceably.”
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