I’m Just a Bill
I’m just a bill, yes, I’m only a bill. And if they vote for me on Capitol Hill, well, then I’m off to the White House, where I’ll wait in a line with a lot of other bills for the president to sign. And if he signs me, then I’ll be a law. How I hope and pray that he will, but today I am still just a bill. I’m Just a Bill was a 1976 Schoolhouse Rock! segment, featuring a song of the same title written by Dave Frishberg. The segment debuted as part of “America Rock”, the third season of the Schoolhouse Rock series. The song featured in the segment is sung by Jack Sheldon, with dialogue by Sheldon’s son John as the boy learning the process.
Back in the 1970s, when the song came out, it was fairly common knowledge that Congress made laws. In fact, understanding how the government functioned was an important part of what we called civics. Civics classes taught students about the three branches of government, about philosophy and what would today be called Western Civilization. Civics was where students learned about the common American principles.
All of this is gone today. We are becoming more and more a tribal country and less a nation. We don’t study our civilization anymore, many would even call the study of Western civilization racist. We don’t study our government anymore. Rather, we are exposed to a seemingly endless spew of media that is designed to misinform the average person about how government works.
The recent government shutdown was one instance of how Americans can easily be misled about what is happening. It was portrayed in the media as if it were a boxing match between President Trump and Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat Speaker of the House. Now it is true that the two of them also played into the misinformation game via a twitter war; however, the fact is that the shutdown occurred because a bill did not become a law.
Article 1, Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States of America states that all legislative powers are granted to Congress which consists of a House of Representatives and a Senate. In addition, Article 1 Section 7 (1) states that All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.
Taken together, these two sections of the Constitution clearly state that it is the sole responsibility of the House of Representatives, led by Speaker Pelosi, to legislate funding for the various federal agencies. In this case, there were nine executive departments that had not received funding authorization. The Antideficiency Act a law that was passed by Congress in 1884, prohibits the federal government from entering into a contract that is not “fully funded.”
Remember the lyrics to I’m Just A Bill. A bill to fund these agencies had to begin in the House of Representatives, go through committee hearings and be concurred to by the Senate all before it could even reach the President’s desk. Since no appropriation has been passed for those agencies, the President was required by Congress to cease most operations. This was not because of a border wall, or because of ICE or because of any other Presidential request or action. This was because Republican and Democrat members of Congress have a very hard time agreeing on anything.
It took more than a month for the House of Representatives and the Senate to agree on a temporary appropriations measure for these agencies, and unless things change in the legislative process, at least some of these nine agencies are likely not to be funded in the future.
The problem is not a policy issue. In the past forty years, Congress has managed to pass all its required appropriations measures on time only four times, the last being in 1997. The mess we see in the legislative branch today is not at all new. But structurally, things have gotten worse.
Congress no longer operates in the way the Founding Fathers envisioned. Power has devolved away from committees and members to leadership. According to research by Pro Publica, twenty years ago, the House leadership permitted debates to occur on about half of all bills. Speaker Pelosi, began sharply reducing debate during the last half of her prior term, and under the Republicans, leadership restricted to almost every bill. The result is that, on major issues, the average member of Congress waits for leadership to emerge from behind closed doors and instruct them how to vote.
So rather than debate bills through the committee process (what is known as regular order), the party leaders dictate the agenda. This means that Congress functions much more like a parliament than a congress, and the party in control dictates the agenda. Since the party leaders (and most members) need to support the agenda of the most strident parts of their base (generally speaking the far left and the far right) in order to not be primaried out of a job (See Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).
A bill from today’s Schoolhouse Rock might sing I’m just a bill, yes, I’m only a bill, and if three people agree on me, I will become a law, otherwise I’m just there for show. I guess I’ll always just be a bill.