I remember overhearing someone exclaim “A Bill is a Bill is a Bill” many years ago. What she meant is that a bill should be treated as a bill in the same way regardless of the system it flows through.
I’m going to borrow her exclamation to refer to something a bit different by rephrasing it slightly. Is a bill a Bill and a akn:bill? Lately I’ve been working in a number of different jurisdictions, and through my participation on OASIS and the LEX Summer School, with many other people from even more jurisdictions. It sometimes seems that everything bogs down when it comes to terminology. In the story of Babel, God is said to have divided the world into different languages to thwart the people’s plans to build the tower of Babel. Our problem isn’t that we’re all speaking different languages. Rather it’s that we all think we’re speaking the same language but our definitions are all different.
The way the human brain learns means that we learn incrementally. I remember someone once telling me that you can only know that which you almost knew before. When we try and learn a new thing, we cling to the parts we think we understand and our brain filters out the things we don’t. Ever learn a new word and then realize that its being used all around you every day – but you seemingly had never heard it before? So what happens when we recognize terms that are familiar, but fail to notice the details that would tell us that the usage isn’t quite what we expect? We misinterpret what we learn and then we make mistakes. Usually, through a slow process of trial and error, we learn from our mistakes and eventually we master the new subject. This takes time, limiting our effectiveness until our competency rises to an adequate level.
Let’s get back to the notion of a bill. Unfortunately in legislation, there is often a precise definition and an imprecise definition for a term and we don’t always know which is being used. What’s worse, if we’re not indoctrinated in the terminology, we might never realize that there is ambiguity in what we are hearing. For instance, I know of three different definitions for the word “bill”:
- The first usage is a very precise definition and it describes a document, introduced in a legislative body, that proposes to modify existing law. I will call this document a Bill (with a capital B). In California, all legislative documents which modify law are Bills. Subdivision (b) of Section 8 or Article 4 of the California Constitution defines it this way. At the federal level, the same definition of a bill exists, except that another document, the Joint Resolution, has similar powers to enact law, but this document is not a Bill.
- The second definition is the much looser definition that applies the word to any official documents acted upon by a legislature. I will use the term bill (with a lower-case b) when referring to this usage. In California, the precise term that is synonymous with bill is Measure. At the federal level, the precise term used is either Measure or Resolution. Of course, this opens up more confusion. In California, Measures are either Bills (and will affect law when enacted) or are Resolutions which express a statement from the legislature or house without directly affecting the law. So now the Federal Resolution is a synonym for a Measure while the California Resolution is a subclass of it. The Federal equivalent of a California Resolution is a Non-binding Resolution.
- The third definition is the Akoma Ntoso definition of a bill which I will refer to as the akn:bill. At first glance, it appears to equate with the precise definition of a Bill. It is defined as a document that affects the law upon enactment. But this definition breaks down. The akn:bill applies more broadly than the precise definition of a Bill but not as broadly as the imprecise definition of a bill. So an akn:bill applies to the federal Joint Resolution, Constitutional Amendments, California Initiatives along with the precise notion of a Bill.
I can summarize all this by saying that all Bills are akn:bills, and all akn:bills are bills, but not all bills are akn:bills, and not all akn:bills are Bills.
As if this isn’t confusing enough, other terms are even more overloaded. As I already alluded to, the term resolution is quite overloaded and the term amendment is even worse. Even the distinction between a bill and an act is unclear. Apparently a Bill, when it has passed one house, technically becomes an Act even before it passes the opposite house, but the imprecise term bill generally continues to be used.
To try and untangle all this confusion and allow us to communicate with one another more effectively, I have started a spreadsheet to collect all the terms and definitions I come across during my journey through this subject. My goal is to try and find the root concepts that are hidden underneath the vague and/or overloaded terminology we use and hopefully find some neutral terms which can be used to disambiguate communication between people coming from different legislative traditions. The beginning of my effort can be found at:
Please feel free to contribute. Send me any deviations and additions you may have. And if you note an error in my understanding, please let me know. I am still learning this myself.