Pay and Benefits Watch: A legislative primer

If there's a bill before Congress that affects you, trying to track its status can be tough given our rather convoluted legislative process.

The two end points of the process are fairly straightforward: a member of Congress introduces a bill; and the President signs it into law. It's the parts in between that can get a bit hard to follow.

After a bill is introduced in either the Senate or the House of Representatives, it is referred to a committee, and then to a subcommittee. Most bills never get past this point. Consider, for example, H.R. 582, a bill that would increase federal managers' overtime pay. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., introduced the bill on Feb. 4, 1999. It was referred to the House Government Reform Subcommitee on the Civil Service the following week. It's still there.

The next step is for the bill to be marked up and approved by the subcommittee and then by the full committee. For example, H.R. 1827, a bill that would give federal workers sizable bonuses for rooting out waste, fraud and abuse, was approved by the House Government Reform Committee on Nov. 17, 1999.

H.R. 1827 hasn't made it to the next step, which is for the bill to be brought up for a vote by the full House. After the full House approves a bill, the Senate is informed of the action and the bill is referred to a Senate committee. Bills introduced in the Senate follow the same path-introduction, subcommittee, committee, full Senate, inform the House of the action.

A bill approved by one house must also be approved by the other.

Once both houses approve a bill, typically there are differences between the Senate and House versions. So a conference committee of House and Senate representatives is called to work out the differences between the bills. Since most bills affecting federal employees don't get this far, members of Congress who want to get a measure passed often use the conference committee meetings on major appropriations legislation to take bills they had previously introduced and insert them as sections of the legislation.

The conference committee version then is passed by both houses and is sent on to the President for his signature.

A famous example of the conference committee insertion ploy was when Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, snuck a provision into the 1998 Treasury-Postal appropriations bill creating an open season during which Civil Service Retirement System employees could switch into the Federal Employees Retirement System.

President Clinton used his now-defunct line-item veto power to eliminate Stevens' measure from the bill, calling it "a hastily-conceived, undebated provision." After the National Treasury Employees Union filed a lawsuit against Clinton, arguing that the retirement measure was not included under the President's "discretionary budget authority," as defined by the line-item veto law, Clinton reversed his line-item veto and the provision took effect.

The line-item veto is now history, making the legislative process one step less confusing. Of course, there are a lot of parliamentary tactics that can prevent a bill from becoming a law. One example is a measure before Congress that would correct retirement errors for thousands of federal employees. The House passed its version (H.R. 416) and the Senate passed its version (S. 1232). But when the Senate informed the House that it had passed S. 1232, the House rejected the Senate version and sent the measure back on a technicality.

It's hard to tell when such monkey wrenches will be thrown into the process. Generally, though, one can assume that bills will follow the normal course of the legislative process, however convoluted it is.

Pay and Benefits Briefs

  • Thousands of current and former federal employees are due some back pay from Uncle Sam under a case currently being settled by the National Treasury Employees Union and the government. NTEU originally brought the case in 1983. Slowly but surely, the union is working out a settlement arrangement to get employees their money. The next meeting between the two sides is scheduled for Feb. 23. To follow the progress of the case, see NTEU's Web site at
  • After last year's focus on military pay, health care looks to be the most important aspect of military pay and benefits on the congressional agenda this year. On Tuesday, House Democrats unveiled a proposal to eliminate co-payments on health insurance for military personnel and their families. A Republican plan, meanwhile, would open the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program to all military retirees.
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