Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Georgia Legislative Process Overview

I received an email from a reader asking about the legislative process in Georgia. I was going to reply to the email with the information; however, I think the information makes for a good blog post-- never hurts to have a review of important information. Since I should be in bed, I took the easy route and copied information from the New Georgia Encyclopedia:

Once drafted, a bill faces three stages in the legislative process. The first is the process of introduction. A copy of the proposed bill is submitted by the author or sponsor to the Clerk of the House or Secretary of the Senate, depending on the member's house. There the bill is given a number, entered into the house's computer database, and printed in multiple copies. The next morning, the bill is considered to have been formally introduced into its house.

Each bill or resolution has a "title," which is an introductory paragraph summarizing its content. As a caution against hastily passed legislation, Georgia's constitution requires that the title of each general bill be read three times on three separate days in each house. On the day of introduction the title of the bill is read aloud on the floor of the chamber. At this point, the presiding officer announces to which standing committee the bill will be assigned.

The bill now faces the second stage of the legislative process—committee consideration. While studying a bill, a committee can invite the author, other legislators, lobbyists, state agency officials, or the general public to testify about the bill. Frequently, based on its study, the committee will make changes in the measure. Should members desire to send the bill to the floor, they adopt a favorable report that simply states "do pass," "do pass with amendments," or "do pass by substitute" (meaning an alternate bill is forwarded). If the committee wishes to keep the bill from advancing, it can issue an unfavorable "do not pass" recommendation, or, as is most common, the committee can simply hold the bill and issue no report. Though there are several procedural motions to force the bill out or to move it to another committee, most bills introduced in the Georgia General Assembly die in committee.

If favorably reported from committee, a bill advances to the third stage—floor consideration. For most of the session, each house operates under its own rules calendar. Prepared each evening by the rules committee, this calendar sets the next day's agenda for floor action. As there are usually more bills favorably reported from committee than can be considered on one day's floor session, the rules committee attempts to decide which bills are most important or deserving of floor consideration. For a variety of reasons, a particular bill reported from standing committee may never be placed on the rules calendar.

Bills placed on the rules calendar are called up one by one for floor action. First, the bill's title is read aloud a third and final time. Then the floor is opened for debate. In each house, floor debate involves a member being recognized by the presiding officer to come forward to the "well" (the central podium at the front of the chamber) and speak on the bill to the entire body. During these comments, members at their desks may be recognized by the presiding officer to ask questions—and they must be phrased as questions. Legislators in the well usually agree to respond, although they occasionally decline to yield for questions.

At this point, amendments to a bill may be offered from the floor. Finally, if a motion calling for the previous question is approved, debate ends and the presiding officer calls for a vote. Each member has a switch at his or her desk to cast a "yea" or "nay" vote via their house's electronic voting system. Approval of a bill requires a majority of the total membership of that house—the equivalent of ninety-one yes votes in the House or twenty-nine in the Senate.

If approved, a bill is sent to the other house, where it must undergo the same procedure. In order for the bill to pass, an identical bill must be approved by each house of the General Assembly. Usually one house will make changes to a bill sent from the other house. In that event, the amended bill is sent back to the first house, which has the option of accepting or refusing the amendments. If the amendments are rejected, the bill is sent back to the second house, which can delete its amendments or stand firm. If the two houses cannot agree, a conference committee consisting of three members of each house can be appointed to try to achieve a compromise acceptable to both houses. If a compromise is agreed to, the conference committee's report is then presented to each house for approval. In recent decades, the conference committee mechanism has become increasingly important for resolving differences between the two houses. Today most important legislation (especially the annual appropriations act) can expect to end up in conference committee prior to passage.