Tag Archives: government

Civics 101: How a Bill Becomes a Law

The following blog post was written by Vishali Gandhi, LWVNJ summer intern.

The United States government, both at the federal and state level, is divided into three distinct and separate branches: the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary. The legislature passes laws, the executive enforces them, and the judiciary resolves disputes with the law. The legislative branch is comprised of the U.S. Congress on the federal level and the N.J. State Legislature on the state level. Both bodies are bicameral, meaning that they are split into two “houses”. Congress is divided into the House of Representatives and the Senate and the N.J. legislature is divided into the General Assembly and the Senate. They are similar in structure and they have almost identical procedures for passing bills.

The legislative process can be incredibly daunting, to say the least. The passage of each bill is a laborious (and often long) process that starts with the conception of an idea and can end in either passage and enactment  or failure.

Rally in front of NJ State House

The first step in the process is the introduction of a bill onto the floor of the legislature. Bills can only be introduced by members of the legislature; however bills can often be inspired by concerns from constituents or interest groups (so contact your representative!). Once the bill has been drafted, it is assigned a name, which is read aloud on the floor of the legislature (this is referred to as the “first reading”). The member who introduced the bill is called the “sponsor”; if there are multiple members introducing and working on the bill, they are called the “co-sponsors”. Bills can be introduced in either house, both at the state and federal levels (except for federal money bills, which must originate in the U.S. House of Representatives).

After the bill has been introduced, it is sent to the appropriate committee for consideration. Congress and the N.J. Legislature each have their own sets of committees in both houses, each which deals with a particular area of legislation. A federal bill concerning the budget, for example, would be sent to the Ways and Means Committee in the House and the Appropriations Committee in the Senate. The committee considers the bill very carefully and often makes changes or amendments to bills (this process is called the “mark-up”). The committee can also decide to send the bill to a more specific subcommittee for further consideration and amendment. If the bill returns from the subcommittee, it can either be reported to the floor for a vote or it can be “tabled” (in effect, killing it).

New Jersey State House in Trenton

If the committee decides to report out the bill, it is put on the legislative calendar and is presented on the floor of the legislature once more (known as the second reading). At this time, any legislator can offer amendments to the bill and the floor is opened to debate. In the U.S. Senate, the bill can be filibustered, which involves delaying or stopping the passage of a bill by debating it for an extraordinarily long period of time (the record for the longest filibuster belongs to Senator Strom Thurmond who filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for over 24 hours). The only way to end a filibuster is to invoke cloture, which requires a three-fifths majority to vote in favor of ending the debate period. Once the debate has concluded and all amendments have been discussed and voted on, a third reading of the bill occurs.

After the third reading, the bill is put to a vote. The entire house votes on the passage of the bill, and if a simple majority (50% plus 1) votes in favor, the bill passes and moves on to the next step. The bill can also be sent back to committee for further consideration. This process is the same in both the federal and state legislatures.

If the bill passes, it is sent to the other house for consideration, where it may pass, fail, or be amended. After the process is complete in the second house, a conference committee, comprised of members from both houses, is formed to resolve any differences between the two bills. They must be approved in identical forms by both the houses in order to move out of either the Congress of the N.J. State Legislature.

Once the bill has undergone its final passage through both houses, it is sent to the desk of the president or governor. There are several things that can happen to the bill at this point: it can be signed by the president or governor, it can be vetoed (the governor has the power of the line-item veto, which allows him or her to remove any part of a  spending bill), or it can simply sit on his or her desk. If a bill sits on the governor’s desk for 45 days without any action, the bill automatically becomes law. If a bill sits on the president’s desk for 10 days (and if Congress is in session), the bill automatically becomes law. If the Congressional session ends during the 10 day period, the bill does not become law (this is called a pocket veto). If the bill is vetoed by either the president or the governor, the legislature can override it with a 2/3 vote; if there are not enough votes to override the veto, the bill is defeated. If the bill is signed (or the veto is overridden), it becomes law.



2011 Voters Guide for Senate and Assembly Races Now Available!

Do you know where your candidates for the upcoming General Election stand on hot button issues like unemployment, property taxes, education, eminent domain, and the state’s energy needs? As part of an effort to encourage informed participation, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey has published the responses of the candidates running for New Jersey Senate and Assembly to 10 hard hitting questions about these issues in its 2011 Voters Guide.  This guide is available on the League’s website, www.lwvnj.org.

The questions reflect what matters most to New Jersey’s voters. Listed by district, the online 2011 Voters Guide provides an easy way of accessing the candidates’ responses. There is a link to help voters find their district, which may have changed as a result of the 2010 census and redistricting.

There is also an analysis of the statewide public question that will appear on the November 8th ballot. The League’s analysis of the ballot question includes the question and interpretive statement that will be found on the ballot, as well as a background of the question and reasons for voting yes and reasons for voting no.  The statewide public question asks if voters will allow the Legislature, when permitted by federal law, to legalize the placing of bets on certain sports events at casinos, racetracks, and former racetrack sites.

VoteThe 2011 Voters Guide, the ballot question analysis, redistricting information, and a wealth of additional voter service information can be found at www.lwvnj.org. In addition, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey also offers a toll-free hotline, 1-800-792-VOTE (8683) for members of the public to call in with their voting questions. That hotline is staffed during business hours and will also be available on Election Day while the polls are open (6 am – 8 pm) for voters in need of assistance.

“Favorite Way to Volunteer”

The following is a continuation in a series highlighting members of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

While she was reading through the daily newspaper, Anne Maiese came across an article about the League’s work on an important local issue. Intrigued by the piece she decided to call for more information and learn how to become involved. After attending her first meeting, Anne says:

“…I realized the League was my kind of organization—smart, informed people who were concerned about what happened in their communities, no matter how small or large one defined that term.”

Joining the League of Women Voters of New Jersey (LWVNJ) gave Anne the chance to become more involved in the community and contribute her valuable opinions within a nonpartisan environment. She was impressed by the respect people have for the League as a nonpartisan organization, and the good work it’s done over the years educating people about voting and important issues. Anne says it has provided her with interesting activities, intellectual stimulation, and many good friends. How could anyone resist becoming a part of such an inspiring and powerful organization? Anne believes others should get involved with the League because:

“It’s a great way to participate in your community—improving it for the long term by becoming informed and encouraging others to become informed and involved too. And you can have a much greater impact being part of a group than by acting alone.”

Anne’s work with the League of Women Voters significantly impacted her community. Camden County has an Open Space Fund partly because the League of Women Voters promoted it, and over 500 high school girls in the last decade have been inspired by the “Running & Winning” Workshop to be more involved in politics. These are among the many wonderful outcomes of the League’s work which makes it an extremely important asset to the community. Anne says:

“Its process of studying the issues before it takes a stand on them makes it unique among other ‘political’ organizations.  It helps people register to vote, holds candidate forums and provides information about candidates and ballot questions with no agenda of wanting them to vote a particular way.”

The League supplies communities with multiple resources to become wholly involved in government. Many of these resources are greatly helpful for voters to become fully informed and educated about what exactly they will be voting for in hopes of creating a society that reflects the wants and needs of the people. When asked about the importance of voting and actively participating in government, Anne says:

“I’ve never experienced not having the vote or the opportunity to participate, but I know how hard-won those rights are and don’t ever want to take them for granted. Besides, I ALWAYS have some kind of opinion on issues, and I want to express them!”

Everyone deserves to have their opinion represented and thankfully, the League makes this easier by providing resources to make the publics’ voices heard. Anne believes New Jersey would look much different without these helpful services, which include impartial moderators for candidate forums, a voter hotline 1-800-792-VOTE (8683), the Citizen’s Guide, and a website– all tools that help the public understand issues, find answers to their questions, and get active!

Members like Anne work so hard to make a difference in the lives of many. Her selfless and enthusiastic attitude towards the League’s work made her a valued and much appreciated member, ultimately resulting in her being elected the President of the League. In this position, she continues to work hard to carry out the League’s mission to promote political responsibility through informed and active participation in government. While Anne’s work with the League shapes society, the organization has also shaped her own life. Speaking of this, Anne says:

“Being a member and a leader within the League has allowed me to understand many issues I wouldn’t have been aware of and to meet and make friends with many others who are concerned about the same things I am.  It continues to be my favorite way to volunteer.”

Following in their Footsteps

The following is a continuation in a series highlighting members of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

Anne Ruach Nicolas began her journey to the League of Women Voters at a very young age. As a child, she was struck by a photograph she saw mounted on her grandmother’s wall. After asking her grandmother about the photograph, Anne was told the story of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the British suffragist movement. In the photograph, Emmeline is being held by a police officer who is arresting her for attending a protest to support women’s right to vote. Speaking of the photograph, Anne says:

“Emmeline is fighting for women to have the right to vote, so I don’t take voting for granted. I want to be a part of an organization with a rich history of social justice combined with the mission of empowering everyone in the voting booth.”

Identifying with Emmeline’s passion for social justice, Anne found a place at the League of Women Voters of New Jersey where she is able to continue making positive changes in the community. She believes that the League of Women Voters:

“…is an important asset to the community because of its nonpartisan stance and its thoughtful and educated discussion of the issues.”

Our society needs such an organization with members who fight for the rights of the people. Without the League, many people would not be seeking the necessary education to be active members of our democratic society. Anne strongly encourages active participation in government and through her position at the League of Women Voters she is able to spread awareness about important issues to educate and create a community of informed voters. Her work with the League of Women Voters has had a tremendous impact on the community. Speaking of some of the League’s accomplishments, Anne says:

“We’ve educated thousands of voters through our educational publications, our voter hotlines and our educational forums. We’ve helped shape the landscape on issues such as election reform, the environment and educating New Jersey’s children.”

Anne also notes that there aren’t many places left where one can have an informed and educated discussion about the issues. This is one reason why it is important for others to get involved with the League. The League, and League meetings:

“…are a modern day version of a town square.”

Are You Being Heard?

It is a busy time in Trenton – Budget hearings are taking place, bills are being debated, and your state representatives are making decisions that will impact your daily life. The 2010 New Jersey Citizens Guide to Government is the invaluable resource you need for quick, easy to reference contact information to express your positions on legislation and your budget priorities to your elected officials.

The New Jersey Citizens Guide to Government includes updated contact information for state and federal elected officials, information on political parties and affiliation, civics information for different levels of government, tips for effective communication with elected officials, and an easy to reference district locator for legislative and congressional districts.

You can use the Guide to:

  • Learn best practices for contacting your elected officials to express your views on important legislation;
  • Educate yourself about voting in New Jersey and your rights as a voter;
  • Provide information to your friends and family about registering to vote;
  • Teach your children important civic information;
  • Give a Guide to first time voters in your neighborhood, civic organizations, or religious community;
  • Donate this vital resource to nonprofits, schools, or libraries in your community; and
  • Become a better informed, empowered voice in government.

The new Guide also reflects recent changes, including a new Governor, New Jersey’s first-ever Lieutenant Governor, new Assembly members, and newly appointed executive officials. It also reflects the changes that have occurred in the past year in New Jersey’s voting procedures, including replacing absentee ballots with “vote by mail” ballots and important election dates and deadlines for 2010.

The Guides, published annually by the LWVNJ Education Fund, are available for purchase from the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. To own this important tool, please mail your order form and check today (calculate cost)! If you have any questions, contact the League of Women Voters of New Jersey at jburns@lwvnj.org.