How does a BILL become a LAW??

Jason Small

Many tribal people in Montana don’t pay much attention to what the Montana Legislature does. I suggest that we do, because many programs helpful to tribal members on reservations flow through MT State government things such as SNAP (food stamps) and commodities; Low Income Energy Assistance; Medicare Expansion etc.; copays for insulin, foster care placements, etc,; support for the MMIW, a few life lines to many of our people. That is why we need to pay attention.

The Indian Caucus of the Montana Legislature has been doing a marvelous job on legislation which could be helpful to tribal people. The Legislature just reached half-way mark and many Indian-oriented bills have survived, with a long way to go.

Only twelve tribal members serve in the MT State Legislature, vastly outnumbered by 88 non-Indians, the majority Republicans; many, but not all, unfriendly to tribal interests. It is remarkable these tribal legislators are making progress.

There is an old saying: DO NOT watch the process of sausage or laws being made – both will make you queasy. At the Tribal Council level, which most NSNT readers know best, it is relatively simple. A resolution is introduced. A Council member explains it. Program directors, elders, tribal lawyers, etc. will say a word or two, both those for or against. A vote is taken. If passed by majority, it goes to the Tribal President can either approve or veto (kill it), which rarely happens as he/she does not want to make the Council mad, as they can impeach.

In other legislative arenas, such as State and Federal government, creating a LAW is more complicated. A BILL must survive a harrowing journey to become LAW. Only a few proposed BILLS survive, estimated at 25 percent. Here is summary of that perilous journey, learned as working for a US Senator and also reinforced by Jonathon Windy Boy, 20-year veteran of the Montana Legislature.

There are two separate bodies of elected officials: the Representatives and Senators.  Both have the right to introduce legislation, and both must approve BILLS before they become LAW.

This is generally what happens: 

  • A group of like-minded people (such as Tribes, animal activists, union folks, transgenders, etc.) comes up with an idea to solve a problem and make things better. Sometimes, elected officials come up with ideas of their own.
  • A friendly elected official agrees to help get that done.
  • That objective has to be translated into legal jargon, producing a “BILL” created by a gang of lawyers, drafters, and researchers called Legislative Services, who advise, provide legal history, make sure it is constitutional and ask about the financial requirements. The young BILL is then reviewed by bureaucrats who put a price tag on it. Sometimes this process can take a long time. For example, Representative Jonathon Windy Boy worked with legal advisors for two years before introducing the Montana version of the Indian Child Welfare Act, a BILL still alive at this point.

Then, an elected official becomes the sponsor. However, since nobody can get anything done single-handedly, other supporters, called co-sponsors from both parties are very helpful, future votes.

  • The sponsor introduces the bill, making a speech which goes into the formal record, telling the intent. Very important because if BILL should become LAW, it will be implemented by well-meaning bureaucrats in charge of the ‘regulations”, often time-consuming, onerous, and burdensome to the beneficiaries. Anybody involved with “638” programs knows that.
  • BILL is referred to a Committee. Committees focus upon specific issues: Education; Commerce, Energy, Agriculture, etc. the first hurdle.

A perilous step because the Committee can, by majority vote, decide whether to “hear” it or kill it.

  • If determined a worthwhile idea, a public hearing is held, giving proponents and opponents opportunity to express views. It very important for folks to gather up the troops to testify, something that Natives are rather lax about. While it is easy to holler at tribal council members, it another thing to get dressed up, drive to the state capital to make a coherent three minute speech to a bunch of old white guys who look like judges. Indeed, they are. The opponents show up more quickly.
  • Then BILL goes back to the Committee, and if lucky, goes to the floor, where it will further be discussed, debated and dissected by all members of that house. That is when members can say “BILL is too short, too fat, etc.” needing to be fixed by an amendment. With majority vote, that happens. BILL then looks slightly different from when it was born, but still alive.
  • In the meantime, the sponsor and lobbyists have worked overtime in the back halls, making deals and trades to keep “BILL” going.
  • If all goes well, BILL gets approved by the respective chamber where it was born and with good blessings, sent to the other chamber, where the same process takes place.
  • If BILL survives all that, it looks different from original inception. Many elected officials have a say-so about that before it can become LAW. Elected officials must be realistic and practical. Making some progress is better than making none.
  • Keeping BILL alive through this whole process can be tricky. Savy legislators know how to do that. For example, if BILL is not strong enough to make the journey alone, they can arrange for him to hitchhike along with a stronger bill, by the amendment process. Legislators must be crafty to keep their BILLS alive.
  • Finally, it goes to the Governor who can approve or veto (kill) it. In this Montana Legislature, Jason Small, the sole Indian Republican is so important. He has the “ear” of the Republican Governor Gianforte and can help many young tribal BILLS cross the finish line.
  • If all that happens, BILL becomes LAW authorizing certain things to be done. However, the new LAW sometimes does not have a nickel to make that happen. That depends on the money guys, Appropriations Committee. Some of the tribal legislators such as Jonathon Windy Boy and Jason Small are canny at that, often generating millions.
  • The appropriations committee starts in the House of Representatives. They can give LAW either a short or long budget to do his job. Might be only two years. It takes many LAWS a long time to into the State base-budget, guaranteed funding over the long haul, when then only the amount discussed.

It is a convoluted process to get BILL into LAW, requiring many skills from our tribal legislators, especially in a climate dominated by very conservative Republicans. That is why “hats off” are to our dedicated and very resourceful tribal members who are serving best tribal interests in the Montana Legislature. They are trail blazers, introducing BILLS which sometimes become LAWS. That has inspired other States and even the Federal government to follow suit.

On behalf of our tribal people in Montana, I say Thank You to these good warriors of contemporary times.

(Contact Clara Caufield at



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