Council 101: Understanding the Legislative Process

Perhaps no civics education tool in American history is as fondly remembered as the Schoolhouse Rock segment “I’m Just A Bill.” In that video, the boy tells Bill “you certainly have a lot of patience and courage.”

For what it’s worth, Bill’s journey, as laid out in the video, makes the District’s legislative process seem like a cakewalk. This is not the District government’s doing. Our local legislative process starts off quite similar to the one laid out by Schoolhouse Rock, but is actually easier, since the District’s legislature has just one house (unicameral), as opposed to the bicameral, two-house Congress. Where things become complicated is when Congress becomes involved.

Our goal here is to describe the District’s legislative process, itself inherently complicated, with as much clarity as possible. Schoolhouse Rock we are not, but we do hope to shed some light on what, through no fault of our own, is unfortunately a somewhat opaque process. [Please note that our description below, as indicated by the title above, is at the “101” level. For a “201” level discussion, click here.  For the PhD level discussion, click here.]

The Process Begins

Much like in Schoolhouse Rock, legislation begins its life as a simple idea. Councilmembers, the Mayor, and independent agencies can all introduce bills, albeit via slightly different processes. (Citizens can initiate legislation through the entirely distinct “initiative” process, similar to what most people know as referenda.)

A bill is formally introduced in the Committee of the Whole (a committee made up of all Councilmembers), at a Legislative Meeting, or with little fanfare, in the Office of the Secretary.   It is then referred to the relevant committee. The committee can either choose not to take up the bill at all, or to schedule a hearing at which citizens, businesses, and government representatives can share their thoughts on what has been proposed. After the hearing, for the bill to progress, it is scheduled for a mark-up, at which it may be amended and ultimately voted on by the committee members. An affirmative vote sends the bill to the Committee of the Whole.

At this point, a technical but ultimately unimportant process point intervenes.  The Committee of the Whole (the full Council, in one guise) votes to place the bill on the agenda for the next Legislative Meeting.  At that meeting, the full Council (in another guise) debates, possibly amends, and ultimately votes on the bill. (For a discussion of Legislative Meetings and Council Periods, see our earlier Council 101 posting.)

Things Get More Complicated

This is where the Schoolhouse Rock train first comes off the rails. You may have heard people discuss the Council’s “first reading” or “second reading” of a bill. Contrary to what some might believe, the Council does not vote twice on everything because we have no vote in Congress, so we need to seize voting opportunities wherever we find them.  Voting twice on bills is part of our legislative process.

If the Council approves a bill at first reading, it is then put on the agenda for a Legislative Meeting at least 14 days later. This version of the bill is called the “engrossed” version. Between the two Legislative Meetings, the text of the legislation may be modified somewhat, but not extensively, in response to Councilmember concerns, late-surfacing issues, and the like.

The full Council then debates, possibly amends, and ultimately votes on the legislation once again. The version of the bill approved in this second Council vote is called the “enrolled” version.

After this second vote, we return temporarily to the Schoolhouse Rock process. The bill goes to the Mayor, and unless s/he vetoes it, the bill has been enacted. (The Council can override a veto with a two-thirds vote.)

Congress Gets (Passively) Involved

If earlier, the Schoolhouse Rock train came off the rails, this next process seemingly is where the train gets stuck at the destination, but cannot yet unload its passengers. Once the District government is done with a piece of legislation, it is transmitted to the U.S. Congress. After 30 Congressional review days (far more than 30 business days because of Congress’ frequent recesses), or 60 Congressional review days for criminal matters, unless both houses of Congress have passed, and the President has signed, a joint resolution disapproving the act, it finally becomes law.

Temporary and Emergency Legislation: Bridging the Congressional Time Gap

During the review period, which can often stretch from as little as 42 days to as much as a few months, the Charter lays out a process whereby stopgap versions of permanent legislation can be enacted on a short-term basis. This is done using tools known as “emergency legislation” and “temporary legislation.”

“Emergency legislation” is not assigned to a committee, does not pass through the committee process, and only requires a single reading/vote by the Council prior to Mayoral review. No hearing on emergency legislation is required, and there is no 30-day Congressional review. It can be in effect for up to 90 days.

“Temporary legislation” exists, process-wise as well as time-wise, as a sort of hybrid between emergency and permanent legislation. It can remain in effect for up to 225 days, thus providing an effective bridge between the 90 day effectiveness of emergency legislation and the time needed to get permanent legislation enacted. Like emergency legislation, temporary legislation bypasses the committee and Committee of the Whole processes. Yet, like permanent legislation, it is required to receive two readings/votes by the full Council, as well as Congressional review.

Between needing to have  Bill, Emergency Bill, and Temporary Bill characters, and the complexity of how best to graphically represent the Congressional layover, we should count our blessings that Schoolhouse Rock never took a stab at portraying the District's legislative process.  If for no other reason, it likely would have lasted longer than Saturday morning.