One of Congress’ primary functions is to act as the legislative office; passing bills and making laws however, due to the incredible difficulty of passing legislation in the US system only 3% of over 10,000 bills are passed a year. The process of passing bills in Congress is so difficult that it has been called a “legislative labyrinth” by some political analysts.
It must be remembered that the legislative process was made deliberately complicated in order to prevent poor legislation from being passed.
First of all after bills must go through Committee stage, many bills “die in committee”, committees are set up in order to scrutinise bills in details before they go through congress, committees generally make or suggest minor changes to the bill before passing it although most bills never make it through committee stage as such the Committee has become known as the burial ground. Committees exist in both the Senate and the House of Representatives so any differences later need to be reconciled in a Conference Committee however this can be a lengthy process so often a compromise is simply worked out between the two chambers by each chamber agreeing to make changes until compromise is reached this is known as ping-ponging and is far quicker.
Many bills do not even make it to Committee stage instead they are deprioritised and pigeon holed with no further action taken on them.
If a bill passes through the Committee stage then it must then pass through a second reading, in the Senate there is a high possibility of a filibuster taking place, a filibuster is essentially an action taken to outtalk a bill preventing it from being passed, in 1957 Strom Thurmond famously conducted a filibuster against the civil rights movement lasting for over a day and in more recent years in 2007 a group of Republican senators got together to filibuster the 2008 Defence Appropriations bill.
The difficulty of passing a bill through both houses concurrently also means that less legislation is passed and reconciliation between the two houses is often required. In order to maintain the balance of powers the President can still veto a bill even after it has been through Congress making it even harder to pass legislation, during Clinton’s time in presidency 32 vetoes were used, this meant that a large proportion of bills which made it through Congress still failed to become legislation.
Due to the nature of Congress bi-partisan support is necessary for bills to get through, divided government can lead to gridlock where each party controls a different house, this can make it almost impossible for bills to be passed such as during the Federal Shutdown in 2011. Even with a majority in both houses it can still be difficult to pass legislation due to the need for members of Congress to represent their state’s interests not just that of their party’s. The lack of a strong party structure means that there is relatively little discipline or whipping in party’s and there is no promotion to encourage members of Congress to vote along party lines this means that voting is often for “the folks back home” not for the party, this resulted in 34 Democrats voting against “Obamacare” in 2009.
In order for many bills to get passed there is often a need for compromise between members of Congress as such favours are often exchanged in order to gain crucial votes on legislation, this is known as log rolling, log rolling is commonly used in order to gain benefits for a constituency. Pork barrelling is similar to log rolling and is used in order to gain financial benefits for a constituency from the federal government, pork barrelling was crucial for the 2008 Economic Stabilization Bill.
Despite the myriad of problems associated with passing legislation no change has ever been implemented this is because despite the difficulty of passing legislation the system enforces a separation of powers preventing an elected dictatorship and the requirement for bipartisanship and compromise means that all bills are fully debated and understood.
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