A Bill Is a Bill, or Is It?

by | Oct 26, 2021 | Business

A bill is a bill, or is it?

It’s the time of year when various pieces of federal legislation reach their culminating point and either pass or fail. In 2014, Roy Meyers wrote of the various ways in which the budget process regularly implodes, highlighting: “triggers, commissions, cliffs, sequesters, debt ceilings, and shutdowns.” In fact, in most years many of Meyers’ observations continue to unfold. Yet somehow, despite all the pressure, pushing, pulling, cajoling, and negotiating, legislation emerges that guides our nation incrementally. By design, no piece of legislation represents everything that every participant in the process wishes for. In fact, compromise requires that votes for final passage often mean voting for parts of the greater whole that may be downright distasteful. That’s how it works.

With the passage of legislation, it’s helpful to refresh on the meanings of some language contained within the legislation.  Authorization bills and policy bills contain what is known as “bill language.” Those are the words that detail specifics of the law.

Directive, Suggestive, and Supportive

Bill language can take three forms, in general: directive, suggestive, and supportive. These three forms are fairly easy to decipher. Directive language will use the word “shall.”  When used in law, the word “shall” means something is mandatory. Suggestive language is meant to encourage a direction an agency should take. Many agencies struggle with strategic direction until Congress puts forth suggestive language to mark the path forward. Supportive language expresses a favorable disposition of Congress to a direction that an agency is already moving on a particular issue.

Report language that encourages a particular agency behavior can be as effective as achieving a legislative outcome. Click To Tweet

Report language accompanies House legislation and committee reports. In the Senate, report language is more commonly associated with appropriations bills. Report language is prepared by committee staffs and typically contains specific comparisons, directions, or limitations of the bill with which it is associated. Report language does not contain the same statutory force as the actual bill language, but it can be an important tool of influence. While agencies cannot be forced to comply with report language, it is widely understood that failure to comply will likely result in a difficult time with the committee during the next legislative cycle, to include associated hearings. For this reason, report language that encourages a particular agency behavior can be as effective as achieving a legislative outcome.

Why does this matter to an executive? It’s useful to understand the differences with which Congressional oversight is being exercised over an agency or industry. Reading the signals contained in the various forms of language can help guide strategic considerations more broadly. You can rely on the media headlines to interpret these things for you…but I think we’ve seen that media filters can skew the story as it suits their audience. It’s within your means to know the differences.

On September 15th, I released my second book, Make Your Move – Charting Your Post-Military Career. This book shares the story of my career to date, and is written to support military professionals who are facing a career transition. All proceeds from the book will go to the Freedom Fighter Outdoors, a charitable organization supporting injured veterans. You can read more and order your copy of Make Your Move – Charting Your Post-Military Career here.

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