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October 31, 2014

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How does a bill become law in Washington? Follow Joe Heck’s case study

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Steve Marcus

Congressman Joe Heck, R-Nev., smiles as someone’s ringtone plays George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” during a town hall meeting with constituents at Pacific Pines Senior Apartments in Henderson on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013.

Remember that Schoolhouse Rock cartoon explaining how a bill becomes a law?

It doesn’t always work that easily in 2014’s hyper-partisan, election-preoccupied Congress. Today, President Barack Obama is signing into law a bill modernizing the nation’s job training programs, one of the few pieces of legislation Congress actually passed this summer.

A critical component of the bill can be traced back to Nevada’s Rep. Joe Heck, a Republican representing Henderson and Boulder City. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act includes Heck’s idea to give more flexibility on who can sit on local boards that decide where to spend federal money for jobs training programs.

The whole process took Heck almost three years — and a few lucky breaks. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look into how a bill really becomes a law.

The lightbulb moment

In 2011, Heck heard concerns from constituents that the state isn’t doing a great job of training people, such as out-of-work construction workers, for future jobs in other sectors.

They said local jobs training boards have too many seats reserved for government officials and not enough for nonprofit or private sector members who are actually training people for jobs. More diversity on the boards would help the community make smarter decisions on where to invest federal dollars.

Heck saw an opportunity for a simple solution. Why not change the law that says who can sit on the boards? He took the idea back to Washington, D.C., and told his staff to get to work.

The right momentum at the right time

But Heck is one of 535 lawmakers in D.C. with an idea. The trick in Congress is to get everyone else to stop what they’re doing and support yours.

He got some help from an unlikely source. A month after Heck’s team introduced its bill, Obama called for modernizing the job training boards in his 2012 State of the Union.

The president’s unexpected support gave Heck the leverage he needed to campaign his colleagues on the House Education and Workforce Committee, of which he’s a member, to sign onto his bill.

He needed Republican and Democratic co-sponsors, and he needed them quickly, if the legislation were to be taken seriously by the chair of the committee.

“It’s helpful, especially in this Congress, to have Democratic co-sponsors, because it shows that it’s not a partisan bill,” Heck said.

Getting through committee

Committees are where many bills go to die. So even though Heck gathered the co-sponsors he needed, he next had to convince the chair to bring up his bill for a hearing and a vote.

Heck got his second break in March 2012 when Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., told Heck that several other committee members had ideas to improve jobs training boards too. Kline would wrap all the ideas into one package and bring it up for a debate.

But Congress moves slowly. The year passed without a committee vote on the legislation. In January 2013, Heck had to re-introduce his bill, because in Congress, legislation that hasn’t been voted on expires at the end of each year.

The second time around, Heck’s idea got a hearing as part of a broader jobs training package. The committee made some slight changes and voted to approve the legislation, but it came on a partisan vote because some Democrats opposed pieces of the bill unrelated to Heck’s piece. The bill went to the Republican-controlled floor in March 2013, where it passed the House of Representatives.

More than two years after his lightbulb moment, Heck’s idea was halfway to the president’s desk. Though victory was far from certain.

Another lucky break in the Senate

Lately, the Senate has also been a place where legislation goes to die.

Heck watched as his Nevada colleague Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled bill after bill from the Senate floor over a debate with Republicans over amendments. Heck worried about the prognosis for the jobs training legislation.

But he caught yet another break when House and Senate leaders decided to negotiate comprehensive jobs training legislation behind closed doors and bring the final product up for a vote in the full Senate.

The maneuver is called a pre-conference, and it meant the bill got to skip a potentially partisan process of being debated in Senate committees only to end up dissolving amid the ongoing argument about amendments.

“It was kind of reassuring that it went that way because it would have gotten caught up in the sausage grinder called the Senate,” Heck said.

The Senate finally took up jobs training legislation in June of this year, with Heck’s idea still intact. It passed 95-3.

Even though the legislation had passed both chambers, Heck wasn’t home free yet. Because the overall bill had changed slightly in the Senate, the House had to vote one more time on it.

The hurdle proved small. The House approved it July 9 on a vote of 415-6.

Almost three years later, Heck’s proposal had made it into legislation that passed both chambers of Congress.

'Perseverance'

It was a rare bipartisan feat for Congress and a victory, if not a protracted one, for Heck.

Everything had to go just right for his idea to make it into law. And Heck didn’t always get his way. But he said he’s not discouraged by the fact it can take several years to get something done in Congress.

“That’s just the way it works here,” he said, adding “I think perseverance is probably the takeaway message.”

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