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How a Bill (In Iowa) Becomes a Law (Really)

How a Bill (In Iowa) Becomes a Law (Really)


By Michael McAllister

“I’m just a bill…sitting up on Capitol Hill.”  Readers of a certain age—or with children of a certain age—will remember Schoolhouse Rock, ABC’s foray into educational Saturday-morning programming from the 1970s.

The series prompted spin-offs such as America Rock, beginning in 1975, originally intended to focus on the workings of the United States government in connection with the country’s upcoming bicentennial celebration.

America Rock showed viewers that, even when simplified to the standards of a Saturday-morning cartoon, the process by which a bill becomes a law is not a simple one. But you’d have to click to read more on the Schibell & Mennie, LLC webpage to know how a bill and under what considerations it becomes a law.

That principle was also in evidence in a behind-the-scenes-look at bill making, tailored to the state of Iowa, via an educational forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters Tuesday night, March 28, at the United Church of Christ at 4th and Broad in Grinnell.

Former state representatives Lyle Krewson and Janet Carl, pictured above, brought their experience in Iowa’s House to the topic.  Krewson, a Republican, served from January 1977 to January 1985 and has maintained political ties since then, working as a contract lobbyist in the areas of human services, public health, and the environment.  Carl, a Democrat elected in 1981, is a six-year veteran of the House.

Krewson’s and Carl’s paths have crossed several times since they were students whetting their appetites for politics in student government at the University of Iowa in the turbulent late 1960s, and today both serve on the board of the Iowa Public Policy Project.


“It’s not easy to become a law, is it?” asks the youngster in the American Rock video.

And indeed, it is not.

Janet Carl began the description of the maze a bill must negotiate to become a law.

First, someone has an idea.  Second, someone writes a bill.  Often the drafting of the bill comes from the Legislative Services Agency, an entity whose Legal Services Division assures that the bill’s language is correct and consistent with the Code of Iowa.

The bill goes back to its sponsor(s) for approval and—assuming there are no problems—the Chief Clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate bestows a number on the legislation—a kind of stamp of approval, but only a tentative one.

The bill must then pass through the legal council’s office in either the House or the Senate.  If it does, it is assigned to a committee.

One might suppose that the committee members debate the bill, but the process does not work quite that smoothly.  “The committee chairperson appoints a subcommittee,” states a handout provided by the Legislative Services Agency and distributed at the forum.

The subcommittee, usually made up of three legislators—two from the majority party—“reviews the bill in detail and reports its conclusions to the full committee,” the handout continues.

“Sometimes,” according to Carl, “what happens is the chair of the subcommittee puts the bill in his or her drawer, and that’s the end of that bill.”

If not—if the bill survives the committee-subcommittee obstacle course (frequently doing so in an altered form)—it can be placed on the calendar of the House or the Senate for debate.  The leader of the majority party determines which bills will be debated and what order will be observed.

Of course, bills can be amended, and even amendments can be amended.

And then there are the lobbyists.


That word—lobbyist—conjures images of shady influence peddlers, pockets bulging with cash, buttonholing legislators and puppet mastering the workings of government.

However, Lyle Krewson paints a different picture, one likely to disappoint conspiracy and quid-pro-quo theorists.  He compares a lobbyist to a door-to-door salesperson, explaining that there are three types:  lawyer lobbyists, staff members for associations and agencies, and contract lobbyists—the latter a position he has held for 32 years.

“Essentially, lobbying is advocacy,” Krewson states.

Lobbyists provide information to legislators.  Hundreds of issues can cross a legislator’s desk, and no person can know everything about every issue.  But lobbyists must be trusted; they are only as effective as their word.  “It’s a self-policing system in a sense,” according to Krewson, “because if I mislead you about my issue, I’m only going to get to do that one time.”

But what about money?

Krewson acknowledges that money “can buy access and in no small measure I think it buys some level of results.”  Hefty contributions from PACs will likely cause a legislator to pay attention to that PAC’s representative when he or she comes to call.

Still, “Iowa has amazingly clean politics,” Krewson notes, recalling an experience of several years ago with an acquaintance who was with the FBI.  During lunch, the gentleman complained of pressure put on his office by the supervising office because there seemed to be no political corruption in the state.  Presumably the higher-ups felt that the field office was not doing its job.

In fact, Krewson cannot recall one instance of anything directed toward him or anything observed by him that could be construed as bribery or corruption.  Janet Carl supports this position.  She, too, attests that not one example of pay-for-play politics, either direct or indirect, is part of her legislative experience.

Sometimes a chicken-or-egg dilemma can lead to erroneous assumptions.  For example, one might view a list of campaign contributions and note a sizeable amount sent to a legislator by XYZ Company.  And one might also note a subsequent vote by the legislator that favors XYZ Company.

Ah-HA!  Somebody bought someone’s vote!  But Carl and Krewson dispute the cause-and-effect connection.  Chances are, they state, the legislator was surveyed by XYZ Company early in the session and expressed ideas that XYZ found friendly.  The ideas generated the contribution, not the other way around.

Both former legislators recommend citizen advocacy—people coming together in groups, meeting with legislators, expressing organized and well-researched ideas, calling, emailing, visiting with elected officials, and so on—as an effective way of achieving results.


So the bill that was once only an idea has been drafted, proofed, numbered, debated, lobbied, amended, debated some more, and passed, say, by the House.  In this scenario, the bill and any amendments would go to the Senate for second passage.

The Senate may attach additional amendments, but the bill must go back to the House for approval.  It is at this stage that an amendment might be amended.  If that occurs, the bill diverts to the Senate, which can accept or reject the revised bill.

In the event of rejection, a conference committee goes to work.  The Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader appoint the ten members of the conference committee, and the committee’s job is to reconcile difficulties with the bill in a report that presents a compromise version.

The Legislative Services Agency reports that amendments cease at this point.  One or the other chamber, however, may reject the report.  In such a case, a second conference committee might convene.

No agreement at this stage means that the bill fails.  If the report is approved, both the House and Senate vote on the bill, and—assuming the votes tally in favorably–the next destination is the Governor’s desk.  This step is called enrollment.

The Governor has options.  He or she can sign the bill, veto the bill, or do nothing.  For bills that deal with appropriations, an item veto is available.  The House and Senate can override a veto with a two-thirds majority in each chamber.

If the Governor takes no action on a bill during the session, it will automatically become law once three calendar days have passed.  However, in the case of a bill submitted to the Governor within the last three days of a session, the legislation “must be signed or vetoed within 30 calendar days,” states the LSA handout.  If no action is taken on this type of bill, another form of veto applies, a pocket veto.

Bills that pass usually go into effect on July 1 following the legislative session.  People can track legislation through links at www.iowa.gov.

Noncontroversial bills can move rapidly, and so can controversial bills if one party is in control.  Other bills may encounter so many roadblocks that they seem to die a torturous death, and the many obstacles can be frustrating to a person who feels that the job of elected officials is to get things done.

But it helps to remember that slowness is part of our system.  After all, things move quickly in a dictatorship.

So when the youngster in the America Rock video asks, “It isn’t easy to become a law, is it?” the beleaguered cartoon bill can be forgiven for quickly agreeing.  But he might have replied, “No, and it’s not supposed to be.”

While much is uncertain about an Iowa bill until that ceremonial moment when the Governor affixes his signature and advances the bill to the status of law, there is no doubt that organizations like Grinnell’s League of Women Voters perform a commendable service when they sponsor educational events such as Tuesday night’s forum.

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