The Confederate flag flew over the South Carolina statehouse grounds for decades, despite decades of continual legislative attempts to remove it.
Then the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston happened on June 17, 2015, killing nine people, including State Senator Clementa C. Pickney.
Less than a month later, the South Carolina legislature overwhelmingly passed a resolution to bring the flag down.
The swiftness of the bill’s approval serves as a reminder of how hugely influential current events—and the attendant media coverage of those events—can be in determining whether any particular piece of legislation will either move easily toward approval or get mired in the legislative muck.
In fact, according to legislative affairs experts, current events are among the most powerful factors—but hardly the only factors—in helping them predict which bills stand the best chance of becoming law.
“That’s at the top of the list,” says Mark S. Singel, president of the Winter Group, a Harrisburg, Pa.-based government relations firm. “The reality is that, once in a great while in our system of government, the pronouncements from the people themselves are so powerful that legislators must act. And that’s precisely what happened with the Confederate flag. [The shootings] generated a groundswell that was not going to be denied. That’s a good thing, because while we live in a representative democracy, and while we elect people to act in our best interests, sometimes it’s the people themselves that generate a groundswell the politicians would ignore at their own peril.”
“If a bill becomes politically charged,” adds Mary Jackson, a principal at Austin, Texas-based Jackson Vaughn Public Strategies, “it’s probably going to pass.”
In instances like the South Carolina flag debate, in other words, sometimes it becomes clear that legislatures have no choice but to move quickly on a bill. Other times, predicting the fate of any particular piece of legislation can be more difficult. But Singel and Jackson say there are some clear ways to determine if a bill stands a great shot of approval.
Telltale Signs of Passage Potential
First and foremost, Singel says, there is the question of where the bill comes from. If it originates from a position of power—a governor, a speaker of the house, a committee chairman—then it’s almost guaranteed to see some movement. It may not pass. But it will be discussed, and very likely will get a vote.
Second, bills that are familiar to both lawmakers and the general public—the “recognizability” factor, Singel calls it—have a better chance of passage than those that are being introduced for the first time.
The more a particular subject is debated, the more comfortable lawmakers become talking about it—and the more confident they become in their position. Few bills pass on their first go-around, especially in states like Pennsylvania, where lawmakers have historically moved cautiously on most issues.
But early failure is not necessarily a sign of their ultimate fate, and each time a bill advances further down the path to passage, its chances of one day becoming law improve.
“If a bill has been introduced in a previous session, and if it’s a concept that legislators have heard about before, it’s more likely to get some real movement,” Singel says.
Finally, he says, it’s important to take into account just how powerful committee chairmen in some states can be. In Pennsylvania, where seniority is honored, those committee chairmen wield enormous influence. If they’re behind a bill, it will move. If they’re not? Well, only some serious legislative finagling or a groundswell of grassroots support might be able to push it forward.
Most recently, the power of Pennsylvania chairmen was seen in the debate over medical marijuana, as Republican Rep. Matt Baker, chairman of the House Health Committee, kept a bill with strong public support locked up in his committee, promising all along that he would never allow it to advance.
In response, Republication Rep. Nick Miccarelli earlier this summer introduced a rare “discharge petition,” with the aim of getting the bill a vote in front of the full house. That effort was ultimately successful, but Baker quickly circled back and defeated Miccarelli’s end-around by having the issue moved to the House Rules Committee, where it may once again get locked up.
In other words, as the committee chairman, Baker’s influence looms large.
“Chairmen of the relevant committees must be engaged for a piece of legislation to move,” Singel says.
Legislative Courage Takes Root in Non-Election Years
Jackson, for her part, points to at least one more major factor that can determine the fate of any piece of legislation—and it’s a factor that has nothing to do with procedure, and everything to do with politics.
Especially when it comes to controversial issues, Jackson says, the chances of a bill’s passage are decreased markedly in an election year. That’s because even legislators who truly believe they are on the “right side” of an issue aren’t necessarily willing to sacrifice their political future for an issue they care about.
Besides, there’s always the next session.
“For politicians facing a re-election bid, those issues can be really problematic,” she says.