We are far removed from the famous schoolhouse rock video about how a diverse group of citizens propose a bill and then personally approach their representative. In fact few bills, if any, are actually authored by private citizens or even the elected representatives who them the private citizens who elected them.
The reality is that most bills start off in one start off in one state and then get copied by other states who adopted them (see model bills). The authors of which are often private organizations, sometimes partisan, sometimes less partisan (see lobbyists) who hire smart young men and women to work in “Think Tanks.”
Now these are all issues at the federal level, but from here on out we’re going to assume the bill is written and a Texas representative wants to make it into law. We’ll also include additional links for following each step of the process so everything is in one easy place to find (another great reason to bookmark this page!).
How A Bill Becomes Law In Texas
Before we get started, and as mentioned at the start there is good news. Texas, with their traditional seven step process, works just like most other states as well as the federal government in how they get bills passed congress. Therefore if you learn the Texas system, you’ll be learning the entire system as well.
Stage 1: Bill is Filed by an elected representative.
After the bill is written (see above), the bill is filed within the chamber that the representative is in. So if it’s a house representative the bill is filed in the house (and will have an HB prefix to the bill). If the bill is filed in the Senate, the bill will have an SB designation. Texas law requires bills to be filed in the first 60 days of the session (which makes the first couple of weeks so hectic for interns) unless the bill relates to some type of emergency.
After the bill is filed, the bill is reviewed to make sure it has the proper formatting and language required to be filed. If it fits this criteria, the bill is then given a bill number. One thing we were astonished to learn in the last year is that, prior to the bill getting a bill number, there is no way to lookup a bill. Considering that the bill is going to be passed that session, one could imagine the conflicts that might emerge. However after the bill does get its bill number, you can follow the progress of the bill here.
Step 2: House Committee
After the bill is introduced, the bill is then assigned to the relevant committee. We’ll have a separate article on this but it’s incredibly important to have an idea of how this process works. It works the same at the federal level as well.
Due to the fact that every bill can’t be voted on by every representative at any given time, it is therefore necessary to have committees. Committees are small groups of elected representatives, broken into different areas of the law (see full list of committee assignments). Another surprising feature of both the state and federal government, is that committee assignments have nothing to do with the specialty of the representative (for example, if a representative is a nuclear engineer that does not mean they will be put into the Energy Resources committee).
Generally speaking, the more important a committee is given to more senior representatives. This is one reason that newly elected representatives can do very little except vote. A pessimist would say (correctly) that this is done to make sure the representative will “play ball” with the party (in Texas, committee assignments are determined by their own party). There are currently 31 committees in Texas and most members serve on multiple committees. Every once in awhile, a very important bill may unexpectedly be assigned to a more junior committee but that’s rare. Remember that bills are filed before the session begins and the process happens very quickly.
Simply put: the bill is going to be assigned to a relevant committee and the committee, after hearing from various experts and people with a relevant background, is going to vote on the measure. If the bill passes out of committee, it then gets put on the schedule for a house (or senate) vote.
Step 3: Voted on by House (or Senate if it’s a Senate bill)
If the committee pushes it through, the bill is then going to debated on the floor of the chamber in which it was first introduced. The bill could be edited or revised (this is called an amendment – not to be confused with a constitutional ammendment) but for now we’re just going to walk through a bill that did successfully pass.
If the bill receives a majority vote in the house (or the senate depending on where the bill originated) it then gets out of the house. The engrossed bill as its called at this stage, with all of its revisions and amendments, then is sent to the other chamber (the senate in this example) and the process begins again.
Step 4: Out of Senate Committee
Ok same process. Before the bill goes to a vote in front of the Senate (assuming the example where the bill was first proposed in the house), the bill must first be sent to the relevant Senate committee. Bills can, and do, fail to make it out of Senate committee at this stage. If the committee does not approve the bill, it’s dead. If not it goes to the Senate (or, again, the house if the bill originated in the Senate).
Step 5: Voted on by Senate (or house if the bill originated in the house)
Now, finally the bill is put on the Senate floor (or, once again, the house if it originated in the house) for one more final all out debate on the issue. If it passes it then goes to the Governors desk. Same thing as a bill at the federal level (but again with a slight variation–see next step).
Step 6: Governor Action – One Way Or Another
Now that the bill has successfully made it’s long journey through the Austin capitol it now sits on the Governor’s desk. The Governor of Texas, similar to the President, has 10 days to sign the bill or veto it. If vetoed, again just like the federal government and most states, the bill is returned to both chambers where it requires a two-thirds majority to become law (and thus overriding the veto). Something to consider is that the veto is much more powerful at the federal government level where there is frequently a near 50/50 split between the senate and the house (and where representatives frequently only vote along party lines).
This is not the case with states that are heavily Republican (or heavily Democratic) but let’s not get too far afield for now, as we are so close to finally becoming a bill. One last note on the Governor’s desk.
Special circumstances such as, what if the bill is passed with less than 10 days remaining in the session? In Texas law, the state’s constitution gives the Governor’s an additional 20 days after adjournment before acting. Otherwise the bill will become law. And thus…
Step 7: The Bill Becomes A Law
You’ve done it! You’ve made it. The Bill is a law! Or is it?
The bill may have been passed and signed by the Governor (or not), but the date on when a bill becomes effective is seldom immediate. As we’ve covered before, Texas law requires that bills at this stage become law on the “91st day after the date of final adjournment of the session in which it was enacted.” Or, ninety-one days after the session has ended. Some bills do become effective immediately and this will be noted on the Bill’s history page on the Capital’s website.