The General Court of Massachusetts (the official name for the
state legislature) is typical of most state governments. It
embraces the same principles of checks and balances that are
embodied in the U.S. Constitution. Its primary
bicameral (two branch) legislature;
hierarchical leadership scheme;
specialized committees that hold hearings and make
recommendations on bills;
committee (Ways and Means) more powerful than
all the others with control over budget and finance;
gubernatorial approval to enact laws or a legislative
override of the governor's veto.
The Massachusetts state legislature sits in a biennial session,
which begins on the first Wednesday in January of the odd-numbered
years. All formal business of the first year of the session
must be concluded by the third Wednesday in November of that
year. The legislature then sits in an informal session until
the first Wednesday of January of the second year (even numbered
years) at which time the Legislature begins formal sittings until
the last day of July of the second year, and finishes the remainder
of the session in an informal sitting.
Any matter pending before the legislature at the end of the
first year of its biennial session will carry over
into the second legislative year in the same legislative status as
it was at the conclusion of the first legislative year. Once
the state budget is passed by the legislature, the legislature may
(but seldom does) end the formal session by vote of both branches
and agreement of governor. This is known as
FILING A BILL
Under the state Constitution any citizen may file a proposed
piece of legislation with the General Court through his or her
representation or senator. This "right of free petition" is
unique to Massachusetts. In addition, there is no prohibition
upon an individual's right to continually refile a bill year after
The deadline for filing legislation is 5:00 p.m. on the first
Wednesday in December preceding the beginning of the new biennial
session. If this deadline is missed, a bill may be
late-filed. Late filed bills, which are routinely admitted,
must be approved by the House and Senate Committees on Rules and
then receive the approval of four-fifths of the members of each
branch to be introduced.
A bill is filed in two parts - the petition and
the bill. The petition is the vehicle for
filing various types of matters for consideration by the General
Court such as bills, resolves, resolutions or orders. The
petition includes the title of the bill and the names of the
legislative sponsors as well as any citizen or group sponsor.
The bill is the actual legislation in draft form.
Each session there are approximately 6,000 bills filed in the
House of Representatives and 2,000 in the Senate. It is the
responsibility of the clerks' office to sort and number each of
these bills and assign them by their subject matter to the
The staffs of the twenty-two joint House and Senate committees
devote most of January and February to organizing and analyzing
these measures. Public hearings on the bills are held by the
committees beginning in late February and generally ending in
June. A "daily list" of bills is published on each
legislative day prior to the date of committee hearings.
Anyone may present testimony in support or opposition to a bill at
the public hearing.
Immediately following the public hearing the committee is apt to
convene in executive session. Although
executive sessions are open to the public, only the committee
members and staff may discuss the bill. At this time the
committee then votes to "report the bill out of committee."
The committee report usually takes one of three forms:
favorable report (ought to pass) - the committee
recommends passage of the bill in its original form, with
amendments, or in a new draft;
adverse report (ought not to pass) - the committee
recommends that the bill be killed;
order - technically means the bill be studied during the
recess but most often is used as a quiet way to kill a bill.
A joint rule of the two branches requires that any bills
referred to a committee before April 15 must be reported out of
committee no later than the fourth Wednesday in June.
However, any bill referred to a committee on or after April 15 must
be reported on within ten days.
Whenever the House or Senate meets in a formal session a
calendar is printed for each branch listing legislative matters
that have received either a favorable, adverse or study report from
a committee. Bills that were filed with the Senate Clerk are
reported out of committee to the Senate and bills filed with the
House Clerk to that branch. The only committee reports which
are subsequently debated by the House or Senate are those with
which a legislator expresses disagreement by calling pass during
the clerks' reading of the calendar.
If a bill receives an adverse report, the debate consists of
accepting or rejecting that report. If the adverse report is
accepted the bill is killed. A member disagreeing with the
adverse report can move to substitute the original bill for the
report. However, substitution of a bill for an adverse report
is difficult to accomplish due to the deference given the
committee's recommendation by the representatives and senators.
If a bill gets a favorable report, floor action consists of a
series of votes in each branch, known as the three-reading
process. The purpose of the three-reading process is to
ensure that legislators have ample opportunity to consider or
debate each legislative proposal. The first
reading of a bill given a favorable report merely consists
of printing its number and title in the daily calendar. After
the title of the bill is read aloud from the podium by the clerk,
its second reading, the Speaker of the House or
the President of the Senate asks for a vote on ordering it to a
third reading. At this point, members may
propose amendments to the bill or simply debate its merits.
All proposed amendments are voted upon before the vote is taken on
the original bill. If the amendments are adopted the bill is
voted on as amended; if they fail it is voted on in its original
form. Bills, which pass this process, are then sent to the
Committee on Bills in Third Reading where either Senate or House
Counsel reviews them for their proper legal form. Bills that
fail this vote are rejected and thereby killed.
Once the Committee on Bills in Third Reading has approved a
bill, the clerk again reads the bill's title from the podium and
the membership votes on whether to pass the bill to be
engrossed. Here too, legislators have the ability to offer
amendments or to speak in support or opposition to a measure.
If the first branch votes against passage, the bill is dead.
If the first branch votes in favor of passage, the bill then goes
to the other branch where it is subject to the same three-reading
Both the Senate and the House must pass the bill in exactly the
same form before it may be enacted into law. If the second
branch amends the bill in any way, the bill returns to the first
branch, which must give its concurrence to the amended
version. If concurrence is rejected, a conference committee
is appointed by the Speaker of the House and the Senate President
to work out a bill that each branch will adopt.
ENGROSSMENT AND ENACTMENT
After a bill has been "passed to be engrossed" in each branch,
it is sent to the Engrossing Division for
engrossment. Engrossment is the printing of
a bill on special parchment. Following engrossment a bill is
sent to the House of Representatives for
enactment. Enactment is the last step in the
legislative process before a bill is sent to the governor.
Usually enactment is a formality, but sometimes a controversial
bill will be debated and even rejected at this point. After
the House enacts a bill it is sent on to the Senate for
enactment. An engrossed bill in the enactment stage may
generally not be amended on the floor of the House or Senate.
Following enactment in the Senate a bill is then delivered to the
Once a bill has reached his or her desk, the governor has ten
days to sign the bill or veto it. If the governor vetoes a
bill he or she must state his or her reasons in writing. A
two-thirds vote of each branch is needed to override a
gubernatorial veto. The governor may also return the bill to
the branch where it originated with recommendations that amendments
be made to it. If the governor neither signs the bill nor
vetoes it, it will become law without his or her signature after 10
days, unless the legislature adjourns before the ten days are up in
which case the bill does not become law, this is known as a
Individuals, interest groups and businesses have a
responsibility to participate in lawmaking. For the
democratic process to work as the framers intended all points of
view need to be heard. President John F. Kennedy once likened
the process of lobbying to the procedures of a court of law.
Lobbyists, whether professional or volunteer, act as advocates
while legislators play the role of judge and jury. The
result, hopefully, is a law in the public interest based on truth
sifted from information and arguments presented to a deliberating
legislator by many interests.