Democracy Day: How does a bill become a law?
The Indiana House of Representatives. (Photo by Monroe Bush for Indiana Capital Chronicle)
Our newsroom doesn’t take democracy for granted, and we hope you don’t either. This story is part of a collaboration called Democracy Day, in which newsrooms nationwide are drawing attention to threats to democracy. We hope it reminds us all to value our democracy and work to protect it.
Below you will learn about the legislative process to turn a bill into a law. Be sure to read a companion Democracy Day story outlining the mechanics of voting and the three branches of government.
How many bills are filed?
Hundreds of bills are filed in the Indiana House and Senate at the start of every legislative session. Any lawmaker can author a bill.
While Indiana senators are generally free to file as many bills as they want during regular General Assembly sessions, the House restricts its members to filing 10 bills. In short sessions — which take place once every two years, the most recent in 2022 — senators can file 10 bills, while representatives can only file five.
How many bills pass?
Bills can die at any time, and most do not make it to the finish line.
On average, a bill is more likely to fail than to succeed. Only two to three of every 10 measures introduced successfully run the legislative gauntlet to become law.
In the 2022 session, 849 bills were introduced — 417 of those were in the Senate, and 432 were introduced in the House. By the end of session, about 20% of the bills passed. Of the successful bills, 95 originated in the Senate, and 83 started in the House.
How do bill readings work?
Lawmakers write and file bills that they present to their respective chambers.
The Speaker of the House or the Senate Pro Tempore assigns each bill to a committee, known as the first reading. (However, chamber leadership can decide not to refer the bill to a committee. In this case, the bill dies.)
The committee chair decides which bills to discuss and hold hearings for. After hearing testimony and weighing the bill’s merits, lawmakers on the committee can vote whether to amend the bill or move the bill forward to their full chamber. If the vote fails, the bill is effectively killed — unless language from that bill is later added into another piece of legislation.
A bill then moves to the full body of legislators. If chamber leadership schedules the bill for second reading, any lawmaker in that chamber can suggest amendments to the bill. The amendments can be approved by a majority vote of the full body of legislators. Following a vote on amendments, a vote is held on the bill itself. The bill could die at this point, or it may advance.
At this stage, a bill on third reading is voted upon by the full chamber — as long as chamber leadership schedules it for a vote. If the bill is scheduled, amendments can once again be made. However, amendments on third reading cannot be approved unless two-thirds of the legislators agree to the change. Following a vote on amendments, the bill once again comes to a vote by the full body. A simple majority of the House can advance the bill. If a majority do not vote in favor, the bill dies.
The process isn’t done yet — the same steps must be repeated in the other chamber.
The second chamber could decide not to act on the bill, which kills the measure. If action is taken, the bill must pass through a first reading, advance from committee, and get the greenlight from second and third readings. The bill could die any step of the way. Just like in the chamber of origin, amendments to the bill may be proposed and accepted.
What does it mean for a bill to pass in “exact form?”
If a bill advances through the second chamber without amendments, it goes straight to the governor for signature or veto. (Still, a governor’s veto can be overridden in Indiana with a simple majority vote.)
If the bill advances out of the second chamber with amendments, though, it must return to the chamber from which it originated. This is because the bill did not remain in its “exact form” while in that second chamber.
What are concurrence and conference committees?
If a bill advances from the second chamber with amendments, it returns to the chamber where it originated. The chamber could vote to approve the changes made by the second chamber. If this happens, the bill is sent to the governor. Or, the legislature could abandon the bill altogether, killing the measure.
If the first chamber does take a vote, but the changes made to the bill by the second chamber are not approved, the bill can be assigned to a conference committee.
A conference committee is made up of two members from each of the chambers. Each chamber sends one member from both major political parties. The four members attempt to reconcile differences between the two legislative bodies. If an agreement can’t be reached, the bill dies. If an agreement is reached, the bill returns to both chambers. Both the Senate and the House must approve this version of the bill before it can be sent to the governor.
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