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The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis March 8, 2013
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Demystifying the Legislative Process

As this issue of Passenger ­Transport is reaching readers, APTA’s annual Legislative Conference is underway in Washington, DC. One focus of the conference is to encourage members of Congress to address the long-term ­solvency of the Highway Trust Fund, which finances most federal public ­transit ­programs.

APTA’s member-driven Authorization Task Force is currently developing recommendations for the reauthorization of MAP-21, enacted in July 2012 and set to expire in September 2014. The task force is led by five co-chairs: Nuria ­Fernandez, chief operating officer, New York Metro­politan Transportation Authority; Carolyn Flowers, chief executive officer, Charlotte Area Transit System; Carl ­Sedoryk, general manager/CEO, Monterey-Salinas Transit; Sharon Greene, principal, Sharon Greene and Associates; and Randall Chrisman, board member, Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

The next iteration of MAP-21 is likely to spark additional debate on the federal role in public transportation and on funding mechanisms, conversations made increasingly complicated by political gridlock and budget shortfalls.

“Now is the time to engage Congress in discussions about the need to get public transportation fully funded for the long haul,” said APTA Chair Flora Castillo, who established the task force with Jeff Nelson, general manager of MetroLINK in Moline, IL, and chair of APTA’s Legislative Committee.

“The first step in this process is to develop a network of grassroots advocates among our members—agency officials and business leaders alike—who are energized and informed about how Congress works,” Castillo said.

How do recommendations and proposals become law? This chart depicts the major steps in the legislative process. The following provides a step-by-step description.

The administration launches the legislative process for major bills such as budgets and multi-year transportation authorizations by submitting its version of the legislation to Congress, which rarely enacts the administration’s bill without making changes.

Aside from the administration’s proposals, any of the 435 members of the House or 100 Senators can begin the process by writing a bill on any subject and submitting it to the full chamber, which refers the legislation to a specific committee for consideration. Which committee will receive the legislation, though, is less obvious. (See page 12 for a list of major transportation-related committees and subcommittees in the House and the Senate.)

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee considers authorizing legislation for transportation and the Ways and Means Committee has responsibility for public transit financing, including the Highway Trust Fund and commuter benefits. The House Appropriations Committee takes care of the apportionment of funds.

While authorization sets out how much federal money is available for various public transportation programs, annual appropriation bills set aside the actual money. The appropriations bill that includes DOT also covers the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The process is even more dispersed in the Senate. The Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee covers public transit; Environment and Public Works oversees highways; Commerce is responsible for passenger and freight rail; Appropriations takes care of transportation appropriations; and Finance is responsible for the Highway Trust Fund.

Bills that cover topics under the jurisdiction of different committees can receive multiple referrals.

Members of Congress introduce a large number of bills, many of which never progress beyond a committee or subcommittee. Legislators must have a reason to move a specific bill, such as funding specific needs or solving problems. In general, the process unfolds like this:

A member of Congress introduces a bill to the full House or Senate, which assigns the bill to the appropriate committee.

The legislation receives consideration first in a subcommittee and then in the full committee. Along the way, senior committee staff plan hearings on topics related to the bill. They receive input from committee members, consult with interested organizations, and ultimately invite witnesses to testify.

While witnesses prepare their remarks and submit the written testimony before the hearing, committee members and staff develop background information to ensure that the hearing will be thorough and informative. Committee members can conduct hearings more quickly if necessary to address urgent issues in a more timely fashion.

The text of the written testimony appears on the committee’s website following the hearing. The official record also remains open for additions, supplemental information, and further written testimony from other interested stakeholders who were not part of the official witness panel.

The subcommittees incorporate information obtained during the hearings as they prepare draft legislation for the full committee. Separate bills on similar topics may make their way through the House and Senate at the same time, each with its own schedule for hearings, committee meetings, and procedural votes.

Subcommittee members “mark up” (amend) the draft bill until the majority agrees to submit the revised bill to the full committee, which then holds its own markup session. The full committee may insert entire new sections to the bill, even to the point of preparing a completely different version.

If components of the legislation fall under the jurisdiction of another committee, it goes there once it has passed the primary committee by majority vote. After the committees finish their oversight, the bill is then “reported out” to the full chamber of its respective body of Congress.

Following the full House and Senate debating, amending, and voting, a conference committee is formed to reconcile differences between the two and arrive at a mutually acceptable compromise.

Once the conference committee agrees on a final version of the bill, it is returned to each body of Congress for final passage. The full House and Senate must vote on conference bills in their entirety, exactly as presented by the conferees. When the conference bill has passed both houses, it goes to the president for signature.

However, not all of these steps are always necessary. A committee can discharge a bill without considering it at the subcommittee or full committee, and the bill can go straight to the House floor. Either the House or Senate can generally take up a piece of legislation passed out of the other body and approve it, in which case there is no need for a conference.

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