Legislative Process Overview

The legislative process is the mechanism used by our elected representatives and senators to shape bills into laws.

The purpose behind the process is to provide for orderly, fair, and open consideration of ideas during a regular or special session of the Legislature.

Each of the action items associated with a bill on the Olympia Newsriver’s home page represents a stage in the process, which is visually depicted in the following flowchart. Commentary follows each graphic in the flowchart for those who can’t see the images, or would prefer a longer explanation.

NOTE: The flowchart does not account for the various ways a bill can be held up and/or killed, because a bill can meet an inglorious end at practically any stage of the legislative process.

Legislative Process (Phase One)
The first few phases in the life of a bill

A bill begins its life when it is prefiled for introduction before session begins, or during the session, when it has been placed into the hopper. Each bill must have at least one sponsor; many bills have a prime sponsor and several cosponsors.

Following the bill’s first reading, it is assigned to a committee (for instance, Public Safety & Emergency Preparedness). The committee will schedule a public hearing on the bill if it thinks the proposal is worthy of further discussion.

After the hearing, the committee will decide whether to advance the bill to the next stage and give it a “do pass” recommendation. The next stop, if the bill has a fiscal impact (meaning it costs something) is the Ways & Means Committee.

Ways & Means may then hold its own hearing to discuss the fiscal impact of the bill. If the committee members choose to advance the bill, they will likewise give it a “do pass” recommendation.

If the bill has no fiscal impact, it doesn’t need to pass through Ways & Means at all. Instead, it can go directly to the Rules Committee of that chamber.

Phase two of the legislative process
The second series of phases in the life of a bill…

The Rules Committee decides which bills get scheduled for consideration on the floor. The House Rules Committee is largely controlled by the Speaker, and the Senate Rules Committee is largely controlled by the Senate Majority Leader.

A bill that either the Speaker or the Majority Leader don’t like can easily be killed in the Rules Committee, often without too much fuss. This is because proponents/supporters may be led to believe that a bill may have a chance when it is really in limbo and will never go anywhere.

Bills with strong legs typically get through the Rules Committee in short order, and are placed on second reading.

However, this doesn’t mean a bill is assured of receiving a vote!

A bill may be placed on the floor calendar, but never come up for consideration. If a bill favored by the Speaker or Majority Leader has the votes to pass, however, it will usually come up for consideration eventually.

At this point, the bill will be placed on third reading, debate will commence, and amendments may be offered. Floor amendments, especially when they are offered by critics or opponents of a bill, are usually rejected. Following debate, a vote is taken (usually recorded) on passage. If the yeas are at least a majority, the bill passes, and is duly sent to the other chamber.

Phase three of the legislative process
The first and second series of phases are repeated as the third and the fourth, respectively, except in the other chamber of the Legislature.

The House and the Senate are not obligated to consider bills passed by the other, but they typically do, at least when they are both controlled by the same political party. A bill received from the other chamber will get a first reading and be referred to committee as if it were new legislation.

If the bill advances through all the committees that have jurisdiction over it, and survives being changed in any way before it is voted upon, it is considered passed by the Legislature… though it is still not a law!

Phase five of the legislative process
The fifth series of phases in the life of a bill…

The bill is subsequently delivered to the governor to be signed.

If an already-passed bill is modified by the receiving chamber, the chamber of origin must agree to the changes for the bill to become law. If the chamber of origin agrees and votes to concur in the amendments, the bill leaves the Legislature and goes to the governor.

If the chamber of origin disagrees and doesn’t like the changes, it can ask the other to recede, and approve the original bill. If the other refuses, the two chambers may form a conference committee to work out their differences.

The conference committee report may not be changed once it is presented to each respective house; it may only be adopted or rejected. If it is adopted, the bill leaves the Legislature and goes to the governor.

If the governor signs the bill, it becomes a law on the effective date, and is added to the Revised Code of Washington (RCW).