An Act of Congress: Bills

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

A Look at Blood River

Imagine the rocky bed of a stream in the middle of a quiet wood. But instead of clear running water in this stream, there is the red blood and thick white fat of slaughtered animals. Such a stream did exist.

The people responsible for Blood River were the owners of a meat-packing plant that daily dumped its wastes into it. From there the waste flowed into the much larger Merrimack River. Other factories also dumped waste into the Merrimack. This made the Merrimack River one of the 10 dirtiest in the nation.

A class of students from Manchester, New Hampshire, helped to get the case of Blood River tried in court. And they won their case. The judge fined the packing company for breaking a federal law against pollution, and he made the company stop polluting. The money for this class project at West High School came from an office of the federal government.

There have been many projects like this one all over the country. They have all depended on money provided by the Environmental Education Act.

Introducing a Bill in Congress

Each year, Senators and Representatives make many thousands of written proposals for new laws. These are called bills. Only a small number of the bills actually make it all the way through the long process of becoming a law.

On November 12, 1969, Representative John Brademas, a Democrat from Indiana, proposed a bill to support environmental education for young people. One week later, on November 19, 1969, the same bill was proposed in the Senate by Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin.

According to the Constitution, only three steps are needed for a bill to become law:

  • A majority of the House of Representatives must vote for it.

  • A majority of the Senate must vote for it.

  • The President must then sign it.

This is all that the Constitution requires. Actually, the process of making laws is far more complicated. It involves much more than three short steps.

How to Move a Bill Through Congress

Representative Brademas and Senator Nelson planned their moves so that the two bills would be acted upon at the same time in each house of Congress. They knew that this would be faster than sending the bill through one house, and then the other house.

The sponsors of the two bills were also prepared for opposition. Representative Brademas and Senator Nelson were both Democrats. They feared that a Republican President, Richard Nixon, might oppose the bill. He could try to convince Republican members of Congress to vote against the measure.

Each bill stated that the federal government would help set up environmental education programs for young people. A new agency of government would be created to give grants of money to worthy projects.

We can now follow these bills from start to finish. Eventually, as you'll see, the two bills became one law.

Subcommittee Hurdles

In each house of Congress, bills are given to committees. The committees study the bills and may recommend changes. Since a committee cannot handle the many hundreds of bills that come to it, it divides itself into smaller groups called subcommittees.

Brademas now had to persuade the subcommittee to approve his bill. To do this, he called to Washington a number of experts on education and the environment. For 13 days, these experts talked to the subcommittee about the need for educating young people about the environment.

Several high school students were also invited to give their opinions. Most of them thought environment education was a good idea.

Meanwhile, the Senate bill was also being studied by the Senate Subcommittee on Education. Members of both subcommittees voted to recommend the bill to the full committee. The two bills thus jumped cleanly over the first set of hurdles.

Committee Hurdles

The bills had no trouble clearing the second set of hurdles. The House Committee on Labor and Education simply accepted the report of its subcommittee. The Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare did the same.

In the House, the next hurdle for a bill is normally the powerful Rules Committee. A special rule of procedure lets a few bills by-pass the Rules Committee on two days of each month. Because the Brademas bill was popular, it was passed on to the full House through this special rule.

In the Senate, the leadership, not a rules committee, decides when bills will be voted on. So now, both bills were on the floor ready to be voted on.

Floor Hurdles

In political language, the "floor" means the large rooms of the House and Senate where members assemble to vote on bills. The bill passed in the Senate by a vote of 64 to 0.

In the House, there was a short debate on Representative Brademas'bill. Then the House members passed the bill by a vote of 289 to 28.

Both bills had cleared floor hurdles. But the Senate and House bills were not exactly alike. The differences were minor. But they now had to be ironed out.

Conference Hurdles

Special committees from both the House and the Senate met in a conference room. They talked about their differences until they had agreed on a compromise bill. Instead of two bills, there was now only one.

Passing the House: A Second Time

The compromise bill reached the House floor October 13, 1970, and passed without a single "no" vote. The work of Representative Brademas was finished.

Passing the Senate: A Second Time

Once again, Senator Nelson got the Senate leadership to move his bill to the Senate floor quickly. And once again the bill passed the Senate without a single "no" vote.

Passing the White House

The Environmental Education bill was now sent to the White House and placed on the President's desk. Would President Nixon sign his name to it? If so, the bill would become law.

If not, the President could send the bill back to Congress with a message stating his objections to it. Such action is called a Presidential "veto." If the President vetoes a bill, the two houses of Congress have to take another vote on the bill. The bill then passes only if at least two thirds of the members of each house vote for it.

President Nixon could have easily stopped the bill from becoming law. But on October 30, 1970, he signed his name to the law. The Environmental Education Act was now the law of the land.

Three years later, in Manchester, New Hampshire, the class at West High School got their first look at the horrors of Blood River.

Adapted from The Presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court, Scholastic Inc., 1989.

  • Subjects:
    Congress, Law
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