Demystifying the end-of-session process

Lawmakers have to align bill versions and get them approved, all before deadline.

By: - April 26, 2023 6:15 am

Only a few more days remain in the 2023 General Assembly. (Niki Kelly/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

It’s not quite Schoolhouse Rock, but as months of legislative business comes to a head, we thought we would answer some burning questions about the final days.

Lawmakers have spent the week so far resolving differences in legislation at conference committee meetings — scheduled on 15-minute intervals, with up to four happening at once — and heading in and out of rules committees and sessions.

It’s all to finalize numerous bills and push them through before a strict, drop-everything deadline.

How do conference committees work?

Lawmakers often change up bills that originated in the opposite chamber — and those modifications aren’t always met with agreement. What’s next occurs mostly behind closed doors.

When a chamber dissents, AKA disagrees, the legislation goes to a conference committee. 

Four lawmakers — one from each caucus — are tasked with negotiating compromise language. The bill author typically serves as the chair. 

Committees usually schedule a brief initial meeting, then iron out differences privately. They’ll come up with a report — the final bill version. Changes can range from technical revisions to full deletions and insertions of other bills.

Each conferee must approve the report, but they don’t always want to.

Why are conferees removed?

This maneuver always gets attention. When one or more of the conferees doesn’t agree with the final version of a bill they will refuse to sign the report. 

At that point, the party in control of the chamber is free to remove that person and replace them with someone more amenable. It doesn’t even take a vote — just an announcement from the podium by the House Speaker or Senate President Pro Tem. 

Republicans are currently in charge of both chambers. But when Democrats controlled the House, they regularly did this as well. The bipartisan conferees are a courtesy at the beginning of the process but are not required to be maintained.

If a conferee couldn’t be replaced, it would give power to one individual to block a bill that the majority of the chambers approve of.

When will the session end?

Short answer: we don’t know. But legislators must end their work by April 29 at 11:59 p.m. 

Long(er) answer: The only piece of legislation that must be finished before the session deadline is the state’s two-year budget. Everything else can die and be re-introduced in the next legislative session. 

We can say this though: don’t count on legislators working on a Saturday. A safe bet would be Thursday or Friday.

What happens if lawmakers don’t finish?

Time has run out before. 

In 2018, even as the clock inched toward midnight, final negotiations stalled and the deadline passed before lawmakers could finalize a handful of bills. Lawmakers had to return for a special one-day session called by Gov. Eric Holcomb. 

That was especially embarrassing for Republicans, who had supermajorities in both chambers and still misplayed their hand.

Or in 2021, when lawmakers knew they would need to return for another session in the fall for redistricting, session was simply recessed — rather than the ironclad end known as “Sine Die.”

Republican leaders have quashed speculation they won’t finish this week. It was rumored that they wanted the flexibility to reconvene if the Indiana Supreme Court upheld a challenge to the state’s near-total abortion ban. 

“Oh man, don’t say that. Lord willing, no,” House Speaker Todd Huston told reporters earlier this month. “No one’s even discussed [a special session]. I think we all look forward to … a normal interim.”

What does Sine Die mean? 

Those are the magical words spoken by leaders to signal an end to the legislative session. 

Officially, sine die is Latin for “without a day.” To have a sine die adjournment is to close up shop for the General Assembly with no appointed date for resumption. It’s the go-ahead for lawmakers to return home to their districts for the last time in a year.

According to the Congressional Institute, the term is used to describe “an adjournment when the date to reconvene is not specified.” It’s used in Congress, as well as in state legislatures. 

When one General Assembly expires, all the pending legislation goes with it. That means any bills that had not been passed yet are dead. 

After a sine die adjournment, only the governor can use his executive authority to call lawmakers back into session.

(Legislators tried to give themselves that authority in the aftermath of the COVId-19 pandemic, but the Indiana Supreme Court upheld that the state’s constitution gives the governor sole authority to call a special legislative session.)

Are there any special traditions or customs?

None that we can share …

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Staff Reports
Staff Reports

Indiana Capital Chronicle staff - Casey Smith, Niki Kelly, Whitney Downard, Leslie Bonilla Muñiz

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