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Only a fraction of bills actually become law. Here's how most of them die


Time is ticking for many state legislative sessions to wrap up across the country, including in Texas. This year, Texas lawmakers have filed some 10,000 bills and resolutions. As the clock winds down, bills start dropping like flies. Here's the Texas Newsroom's Aurora Berry.

AURORA BERRY, BYLINE: If you're not a Texan, you might be wondering why I'm dragging you into the twisted procedural processes of the Texas legislature. But like it or not, it probably isn't so far off from what's going on in your own state capitol, deadlines and chaos included. Every two years, lawmakers here arrive at the Capitol in Austin to bring shiny new legislation to life, but...

JOSHUA BLANK: Many, many bills will die.

BERRY: Joshua Blank of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas says bill deaths shouldn't just be accepted but expected.

BLANK: There's an infinite number of ways in which a bill can fail to become a law in the Texas system.

BERRY: And apparently, in a legislative murder mystery, there are lots of deadly weapons used to butcher bills. Here's what has to happen for a bill to dodge its demise. Each has to be assigned to a committee, then pass in it. Next, the bill is scheduled in the House or Senate. After that, it goes to that chamber, is debated and voted on and goes to the other chamber for a vote there. It's a long and laborious process, and it all has to be done in under 20 weeks.

SHERRI GREENBERG: What I say is, visualize the Olympics, and somebody is running the hurdles.

BERRY: University of Texas at Austin Professor Sherri Greenberg was a state representative for 10 years.

GREENBERG: And they get over one hurdle, and then there's another, and there's another. That is what it takes to pass a bill.

BERRY: One particularly high hurdle is called a point of order. That's when a bill gets to the House or Senate floor but a member points out an instance where the rules were violated during the bill's journey. Then it's sent back to committee. Greenberg recalls when one of her early bills was taken out that way.

GREENBERG: That was a big learning experience for me. After that, I checked all of my own bills and had experts check them and had them check the entire process.

BERRY: A lesson she later used to block bills herself.

GREENBERG: Knowing the rules is a big advantage.

BERRY: After the setback of a point of order, a bill might make it back into the chambers. But Joshua Blank says that leaves it to face the most deadly killer of all.

BLANK: The clock and the short legislative session.

BERRY: Time. It comes for us all, even legislation. One way to kill a bill is just to wait around until it falls off the end-of-session cliff. And there are also ways to give it a little push, like this thing called chubbing.

BLANK: Chubbing is the process by which legislators engage in this extended debate around legislation simply to eat up the available time to consider bills.

BERRY: This funny word is no joke. A distant cousin of the filibuster, chubbing plays a big part in sinking legislation, so lawmakers must carefully choose which bills to pass with their precious time. Last session, around 10,000 bills and resolutions were proposed. A fraction, some 3,800, passed both chambers. And Blank says that's the way the system was designed to work.

BLANK: The process is not made to push legislation through the process too quickly in order to prevent ill-considered laws.

BERRY: In a way, bill death is just another part of the legislature's life cycle. Sherri Greenberg has this advice for current lawmakers mourning their losses.

GREENBERG: If first you don't succeed, try, try again.

BERRY: So farewell to all the dead bills. We barely knew thee. For NPR News, I'm Aurora Berry in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL CAESAR SONG, "DO YOU LIKE ME?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aurora Berry