How a Bill Becomes a Law in Massachusetts
and Your Role In It
There are two bodies that make up the legislature – the House and the Senate. The state is divided into various districts, with districts being represented by an elected member in the House and an elected member in the Senate. They are called state representatives and state senators. This is similar to the federal government.
The legislature’s committee system is an important part of the lawmaking process. In Massachusetts there are three types of committees: Senate, House and Joint. All committees are bipartisan, meaning they consist of members representing all the various parties in the legislature: Democrats, Republicans, Independents or a member of another political party. Joint Committees are made up of members from both the House and Senate. Each committee has a specific jurisdiction, usually defined by topics such as health care, economic development or transportation. These committees, most of which are joint committees, review proposed legislation within their jurisdiction. Joint committees have both a Senate and House Chair.
Bills, Hearings, and Committee Vote
A bill is filed by a legislator and may have many co-sponsors. The bill is then assigned to the appropriate committee depending on the topic. Each committee then announces a hearing date for those bills assigned to it. There is only one public hearing for a bill. The legislature is not required to give much notice before the hearings take place. Usually there is a week’s notice or less. Everyone is welcome to testify. You may choose to testify in person, in which case we strongly suggest you review our Guidelines for Preparing and Giving Testimony. If you are able to testify in person, you can answer questions by committee members and generally get your point across more effectively. In addition, anyone can submit written testimony by email to the chair(s) of the committee during the week of the hearing. MCFL will send out an email with information detailing who you should email your testimony to. The chair will share your testimony with the other members of the committee. This is one of the few times when it doesn’t matter if you are a constituent of the chair or one of the members of the committee. Any interested party can send in written testimony to the chairs and committee members.
Once testimony is heard, the committee may vote the same day but usually does not vote for a period of time. When they do vote, they can vote to send the bill to the floor of the legislative body (House or Senate) where it originated to be voted on. They can also vote to table, send to study, etc or they may not vote at all. Any action other than sending it to the floor for a vote generally means the bill is dead for that session.
The Influence You Have as a Constituent
A constituent is a person who lives in the district of the legislator or official. You are a constituent of your State Representative, your State Senator, your U. S. Congressman, etc. from the President down to your local town officials.
As a constituent, you are very important in the legislative process; perhaps more important than you realize. You carry a lot of clout! You have a right to meet with your legislators and to have them pay attention to your views. Unfortunately, many people do not take advantage of the influence they have in the running of our government. It has been said that if as few as five to ten constituents contact their legislator on a particular issue, they can influence their vote.
There are a variety of ways that you can contact your legislator. A personal meeting is the most influential. Most legislators spend some regular time in their district in meetings with their constituents, which offers you the opportunity to meet them. You might also be able to visit with them at the State House office, but we advise you call ahead first to make sure they will be in. Other ways of contacting your state representative or state senator are by letter, phone call, or by email. A letter is more effective than a phone call, which is more effective than an email. On occasion we have asked our members to call the legislative committee members even before the hearings. We did that with the hearings on doctor-prescribed suicide in 2013, because we wanted to influence the way the legislators heard the testimony. Any type of form correspondence i.e. letter, postcard or email sent en masse by a group of individuals, does not have great influence.
Constituents of committee members are extremely important and have a place which no one else does. Once the hearings are over, it is up to constituents of committee members to work with their legislators –- support those who are with us, educate the undecided, and inundate the ones who oppose our position about why the bill should or should not go the floor for a vote. Just before that vote of the committee, it is appropriate for the general public to call the chairs. If a bill does get to the floor, all pro-life people in the state should attempt to meet with their own Representative and Senator. If that is not possible, the least they must do is call to urge support or defeat.
All the information you will need about your legislator’s contact information and the information on why we support or oppose particular bills may be found in the annual list of our legislative agenda.
We send out email updates with specific information and suggestions for the most effective action. We also telephone people in particularly sensitive districts. If you do not currently receive emails and calls from Mass Citizens, please sign up for our email list. Even better, become a member of MCFL, providing the financial support that allows us to lead the pro-life efforts in our Commonwealth. That is how you exercise your influence for life!
As always, the most vulnerable in our society are wholly dependent on your efforts and mine. Let’s be as effective as possible!
This is a detailed, four-page explanation of how a bill becomes a law in the Massachusetts state legislature.
The Legislative Process in Massachusetts
Legislation can originate in either the House or Senate, with the exception of revenue bills (also called "money bills;" i.e., bills which require the Commonwealth to raise revenue) and the budget, which are constitutionally mandated to originate in the House. All bills are introduced by legislators, but the state constitution allows citizens to present petitions "by request." With the cooperation of a legislator, the bill is drafted and submitted. The Governor may also file bills.
The bill filing deadline is 5:00 p.m. on the third Friday in January of the first annual session of the General Court.
"Late files" (i.e. bills filed after this deadline) require a report of the committees on Rules of the two branches, acting concurrently, and then approval of two thirds of the members of each branch voting thereon.
Once the bill is filed in the House or Senate Clerk's office, the bill is given a number andrecorded in a docket book, which lists all bills as they are filed. All bills have a title andnumber. Bills that originate in the House begin with "H" and those that originate in the Senate begin with "S." The House and Senate Clerk's office refer bills to the appropriate committee for consideration.
Assignment to Committee:
Bills are referred to a topic-appropriate committee by the Senate Clerk and House Clerk subject to the approval of the presiding officer in each branch, and subject to any changes the full Senate or House may make in the assignment process.
For a list of the current Joint Committees, point your browser to https://malegislature.gov/Committees.
It is mandatory for each joint committee to hold a hearing on each bill submitted to the committee. Hearings are open to the public and all interested parties may attend and address the committee. The committee chair may limit the time allowed to individual speakers and/or the time allowed for a particular matter.
Committee staff prepare background analyses, known as legislative summaries, on bills for presentation to Committee members before the public hearing. These summaries remain with the Committee staff.
Following the completion of a hearing, the committee holds an "executive session" to review testimony before making their recommendations. Committees are required to report all bills, but they are not required to conduct hearings on all of them. In Massachusetts, committee chairs lack the authority to individually block legislation in committee. Executive sessions are open to the public, but only committee members may speak. The committee then issues a report to the Clerk's office recommending that a bill "ought to pass," "ought not to pass," or it is given a study order.
Study orders seek to authorize the Committee to sit during recess and study this measure and similar ones and file a narrative report of its findings. Due to budgetary and staff constraints, though, study orders are seldom approved. The vast majority of bills sent to a study order do not progress any further in the legislative process.
The committee may recommend a new draft of the bill before it (i.e., recommend that the bill "ought to pass" as amended); this committee draft will have a new bill number as assigned by the Clerk. Such a redraft action occurs when many similar measures are filed before the committee, which will report out one draft only. A redraft may also occur when there are major language/terminology changes recommended by the Committee.
If a bill receives a favorable recommendation, the bill moves through the legislative process. This process is known as "Three Readings."
First Reading - This is the first of three mandatory readings in each branch of the General Court. This reading is the account of the Committee Report delivered by the Clerk of the House or Senate. Once a bill receives a favorable report from a committee, it is usually sent to the Committee on Steering and Policy (some bills, especially those involving money, will go to Ways and Means before Steering and Policy).
Second Reading - The Second Reading occurs when the bill is released from Steering and Policy. It is then placed in the Orders of the Day. At this time, the floor of the chamber is
opened for discussion and debate on the merits of the bill. Amendments frequently occur during this time. A favorable roll call vote or a voice vote is needed to send the bill to the Third Reading.
Third Reading - After a vote of approval for the bill's second reading occurs, it is sent tothe Committee on Bills in Third Reading to be reviewed. This committee checks the contents of the bill for legal technicalities and proper citations. After the bill is releasedby this committee it is read for the third and final time in the chamber where it may againbe debated and amended.
Formal and Informal Sessions:
The Legislature is constitutionally mandated to meet in their respective chambers for either an informal or formal session every 72 hours. Typically, informal sessions are held on Mondays and Thursdays unless there are formal sessions scheduled for those days. The scheduling of informal and formal sessions is determined by the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate.
An informal session addresses non-controversial business of the Legislature and no roll calls are taken. Only reports of committees, enactments, papers from the other branch, resolutions, amendments, matters in the Orders of the Day, and other non-controversial issues are supposed to be considered and are approved by a voice vote. Informal sessions allow the Legislature to address day to day business, however, all business conducted must pass unanimously. If any member objects to a matter, the matter is not approved at that time. Additionally, while no attendance is taken, a handful of members usually attend the session, including a representative of the minority party, a representative of the progressive caucus, and members that anticipate
that their bills may be approved during the session.
A formal session considers and acts upon reports of committees, messages from theGovernor, petitions, orders, enactments, papers form the other branch, matters in theOrders of the Day and any other issues that may be controversial in nature and during which roll calls may be taken.
Engrossment and Enactment:
Once released from the Committee on Third Reading, the bill is brought before the membership for debate and a vote on "passage of the bill to be engrossed." Once the bill is engrossed, it is sent to the other chamber to repeat the Three Reading process and engrossment. If the House and Senate pass the exact same versions of a bill, a vote on enactment must occur in both chambers.
If there are differences between the House and Senate bills, both chambers must agree on one version; the measure can't progress to enactment until the same draft is approved by both chambers. This situation, which commonly arises during appropriation bill proceedings, requires the appointment of a conference committee. These are temporary bodies that iron out differences in legislation between the two branches. Conference committees are appointed by the Speaker of the House and Senate President of both chambers and consist of three representatives and three senators, one of whom from each body must be from the minority party.
Following enactment, the bill is sent to the Governor, who may act on the bill in a variety of ways. The Governor may:
1. Sign the bill. The bill becomes law after 90 days, unless it contains an emergencypreamble, in which case it becomes law immediately.
2. Veto the bill. The bill is returned to the General Court with his/her reasons for the veto. The legislature may reconsider the bill and can override the veto by a 2/3rdsvote in both chambers. The bill then becomes law without the Governor's signature.
3. The Governor may choose not to sign the bill but let it become law anyway. This occurs if he/she holds the bill for ten days during which time the legislature is insession.
4. Return the bill to the General Court with recommendation for changes. This action also opens the bill to any additional amendments offered by members. The Legislature can consider the recommendation, but may return the bill without accommodating his/her proposal. If so, the Governor must sign the bill as is or veto it.
5. Line item veto. The Governor only has this power for the annual state budget. He/she may line out or veto certain provisions, most often expenditure items with which he does not agree, and then sign the remainder into law. The line item vetoes are returned to the General Court who can override the Governor's vetoes with a 2/3rds majority in both chambers.
Any bills that are not passed by the conclusion of the two year legislative session are no longer valid. They must be refiled to be considered during the next session.
Effective Date of Legislation:
Laws involving general legislation (i.e. legislation of a general and permanent effect), become effective 90 days after the Governor's signature. Days are counted in succession, including holidays and weekends, and acts become effective at 12:01 am on the 91st day.
Acts with emergency preambles usually provide for the measure to become effective immediately, but always in less than 90 days. The preamble must be adopted by both branches. In such cases, the act is effective upon the precise moment of the Governor's signature.
In addition, the Governor can file an "emergency letter" requiring an act to become effective immediately. This emergency declaration is filed with the Secretary of State; the effective date and time (down to the minute) is recorded as of the filing in the Secretary of State's Office.
Some acts contain particular effective date language as a provision within the act. Special acts are usually effective in 30 days unless noted otherwise at the end of the act. Some Special Acts are made effective upon passage if, upon review by Senate or House Counsel or an amendment of the General Court, it is decided that a more immediate effect is necessary.