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Constitutional Debate Creates Teachable Moments

Andrew Downs

(Ed. note: This month, we're launching a series of weekly columns from contributors across the community on topics like health, politics, food and more. This is the second column in our series.)

Indiana’s education standards include requirements regarding civics and government.  But I am a realist.  I know that just because a standard exists, there is no guarantee that a student will retain information any longer than it takes to through a test, if that long.  Life has an interesting way of providing moments when those things we were required to learn, and forgot, suddenly have relevance.  The legislative process is one of those things. 

The interest surrounding HJR-3, the proposed amendment to the Indiana Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, has provided numerous teachable moments regarding the legislative process. 

I wish I could say that the explanation is a simple one, but I cannot.  If it were simple, it would have been retained by more people.  In the case of HJR-3, the explanation is about two processes.  One is how a bill passes through the General Assembly.  The other is how to amend the Constitution.

People who remember the Schoolhouse Rock song about a bill becoming a law know the basics because Indiana’s process mirrors the federal process, but there are some subtleties worth noting.


The process begins with a legislator asking the Legislative Services Agency to assist with researching and drafting a bill.  The legislator then introduces the bill and waits for it to be called for its first reading.  During the first reading, the title of the bill is read before the entire chamber.  Legislators take no significant action during first reading. 

After the first reading, the leadership of the chamber assigns the bill to a committee.  Committees are assigned more bills than they have time to consider.  If the legislator who introduced the legislation is lucky, the bill will have a hearing in committee. 

During the hearing, committee members take testimony on the bill and consider amendments from committee members.  Committees are not obliged to take a vote on a bill even if there is a hearing.  If there is a vote, the bill may be passed out of committee in its original or amended form or it may be defeated. 

Bills that pass out of committee go before the entire chamber for a second reading.  It is during the second reading that members of the chamber can offer amendments to the bill.  This can be an exciting stage for controversial legislation.  On Monday (Jan. 27), the House adjourned temporarily so the caucuses could discuss strategies for amending, passing, and defeating HJR-3.

The final step in the process in the chamber where the bill started is for the bill to have a third reading before the entire chamber.  If the bill manages to clear this hurdle, it travels over to the other chamber where the process starts all over again – introduction, first reading, committee assignment and hearing, second reading, and third reading.  In the end, the versions of the bill that clear each chamber have to match.

Amending the Constitution follows this path, but it has to make it through the process before two consecutively elected General Assemblies and it has to be the exact same wording both times.  If that happens, then the voters get to have the final say. 

Getting a bill through the General Assembly is not easy.  On average 20 to 30 percent of the legislation introduced in any given session becomes a law.  That may sound inefficient.  It is, but remember we wanted a system that was slow and inefficient.  When it comes to amending the Constitution, we wanted a process that moved even slower.

Andrew Downs is Director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the staff, management or board of Northeast Indiana Public Radio. If you want to join the conversation, head over to our Facebook page and comment on the post featuring this column.