Senate Democrats have tussled over the details of the health care reform bill this week, in an effort to get a version passed before Christmas Day. President Obama has said he’s hoping the legislation will be finalized by the end of the year. In an “Explainer” column first published in 2008 and reprinted below, Jacob Leibenluft looked at how Congress gets a physical copy of a finished bill to the president’s desk.
Congress voted Thursday on a farm bill it had already passed after realizing the version that had been sent to—and then vetoed by—the president was missing 34 pages. How do bills get sent to the president?
They are delivered by hand on “parchment.” Once a bill has been approved by both houses of Congress, the clerk of the House or the secretary of the Senate —depending on where the bill originated—is tasked with preparing the legislation to go to the White House. An enrolling clerk is responsible for ensuring that he or she has the final language of the bill in hand (or more accurately, in an XML document) and then printing it onto a special kind of paper called parchment as prescribed by federal law. (For really long appropriations bills, the parchment requirement has been waived before.) Unlike traditional parchment, the paper (PDF) is not made from animal hides, but it does have a finish meant to resemble goatskin or lambskin. According to news reports, the missing pages from the farm bill were left out during the parchment-printing process, and the president vetoed the bill based on a conference report that reflected the complete legislation.
After the bill has been printed, a certificate is attached to the last page to be signed by the clerk of the House or the secretary of the Senate, the speaker of the House, and the presiding officer of the Senate. Once the congressional officers have signed the bill, it is then hand-delivered to the executive clerk of the White House for the president’s OK. The bill is also sent via FTP to the Government Printing Office to be posted online and printed for broader distribution.
What happens if the bill contains an error? If it is a simple typo that doesn’t change the meaning of the bill—like a missing shall in this legislation authorizing an expansion of Vicksburg National Military Park—the president might issue a signing statement saying the executive branch will just act as though the mistake was never made. Corrections discovered before the bill reaches the president’s desk are supposed to be made through a concurrent resolution of both houses of Congress (PDF). In two recent cases, however, changes made by enrolling clerks without new votes have raised controversy—one involving revisions to the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act and another related to a last-minute change in a highway bill allegedly requested by Alaska Rep. Don Young.
Ever since an 1892 Supreme Court case concerning a tariff act that went to the president with a paragraph on tobacco taxes missing, the courts have generally ruled that the version of a bill signed by the officers of both houses of Congress and the president stands, even if the language differs from what Congress voted on. So, if the mistake changes the substance of the legislation, then the erroneous language is usually law unless Congress decides to do something about it. In that case, Congress can pass “technical corrections” in separate legislation to remedy the mistake. According to the Library of Congress’ Thomas database, more than 20 technical-corrections bills have been introduced since the current Congress began last January.
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Explainer thanks the U.S. House of Representatives Office of the Clerk, the U.S. Senate Office of the Secretary, Gary Somerset of the Government Printing Office, and Walter Stewart.