Teacher Writings HOME
Participation & Citizenship Collection
How a Bill Becomes a Law
Joy Ahrens and Valerie DeVuyst, Portland Adult Education
We had discussed the Legislative Branch of government and wanted to give
the students some hands-on experience on a better understanding of how a
law is actually passed. Since one of the issues they had identified early
in the class as a 'problem' was taxes, we thought this was a good one to
use, especially since it is so much in the news these days with President
Bush trying to get a tax cut through Congress.
We started with a general discussion on taxes - what sorts of things federal
taxes pay for. Students came up with a wide variety of programs. We then
gave them a sheet - slightly dated, but a good application of this information
- detailing how much money the state of Maine received in federal dollars
in '97 from which departments. We then read the actual programs mentioned
in a newspaper article and had them decide which department each item
fell under. For example, $xx for food stamps; $xx for military contract
for BIW to build warships; $xx for wastewater treatment plants; $xx for
special education programs; $xx for refugee services, and so on. This
enabled them to talk about whether this was a good expenditure of money...
how many things provided jobs for Maine people and so on. We also talked
briefly about the federal budget, and how, like a family budget, you have
to decide how many dollars you have available, and then what you need
to spend it on. (We did not get into national debt... !!) We felt after
this they had a better understanding of the importance of tax revenues
to support various programs and things that affect their lives.
We then handed out a copy of Bush 's tax cut proposal which had been printed
in the Christian Science Monitor. There have been many articles
and charts in numerous publications showing the proposal from different
perspectives, and although they would have provided much more complete
information, students would not have been able to understand many of them.
This was a simple chart with enough information for discussion purposes.
We made sure everyone could understand the chart... how much tax people
of different income levels pay now, and how much reduction would come
from the proposed tax cut.
We then told students that they would be the Congress,
debating and working on this proposed law. (Because of the small number
of students, they had to perform multiple sequential tasks as committee,
House and then Senate.) We described committees and how they work, and
as a House committee, they had a very good discussion on the merits or
drawbacks of the proposal. They were each assigned a state representation
and we talked about how certain states were currently more or less supportive
of the President's views on this issue. Most students felt that they would
prefer a greater tax cut for the middle class, rather than so much at
the top of the income levels. As Committee, they voted against the proposal,
so it was now officially dead.
We described what would have to happen after that
if the matter was to be pursued by the proponents. As contrast, we told
them that it had actually passed the House, so we had them go through
the motions of being a recommending committee, then the House, and then
the Senate. We were able to talk about the importance of the Senate votes...
how a small state like Maine has a greater impact in the Senate where
our two votes count as much as all of Texas. They were all aware of President
Bush having been in Portland the previous Friday, and we talked about
how he was trying to persuade our Senators (and voters) to support his
proposal. We will be able to follow this as it gets discussed in the Senate
over the next few weeks. We were also able to impress upon them how important
at a time like this it is to call or write your Senators or Representatives,
because they are impacted by views of the voters. (Handout with names
& contact numbers for all Federal representatives, President, Sec.,
of State.) We discussed briefly the President signing a bill as a final
act to make it a law.. also talked about veto and the 2/3 override. This
may have gotten lost on them, but it will be revisited soon as we discuss
the executive branch more thoroughly. We left them with a handout from
the Sourcebook with a pretty good graphic on how a bill becomes a law
(though we both felt that some of the language on the chart was too difficult.)
It would have been really nice to be able to build something like this
over time.. to have the students search out information, compare what
is in the press and discuss ideas from a more self-generated perspective.
However, many do not have the language / comprehension skills, nor do
we have the time to build that in this class. I also realize that these
sorts of activities hopefully are achieving one small goal of getting
the students to a better working knowledge of the theory in the books,
but we are not getting to the point of having them transfer that into
civic action. I think this is a good long-term goal, but hard to achieve
in this time frame.
When we do this again, we also will try to make
the room feel more official - less like a classroom and more like a committee
chamber... better nametags, seat people differently and so on. In this
particular class, I also felt that I , as teacher, did too much of the
talking, but there did not seem to be another way to present the information.
After letting my 'reflection' sink in, I realized that the natural follow-up
would be to write a letter to our Senators. In the next class we had the
opportunity to review the information we had discussed, and brainstorm
what things the students could write in a letter. In pairs, they each
came up with one point/sentence, and we composed a letter to Senators
Snowe and Collins. One of the students wrote it out by hand, and we sent
it off. I also assured them that these letters do make a difference and
that they would receive a reply. The reply was very slow in coming, and
only 3 students remained in class the last week when the letter came on
May 14. But those who did see it were very impressed (in spite of VERY
convoluted language!) with the fact that they actually had a letter from
their Senator, and that their words had been received and considered.
England Literacy Resource Center