The "How a Bill Becomes a Law" Bill Cartoon CharacterWe all know how a bill becomes a law, right? We’ve seen the old song and dance, about a bill on Capitol Hill.

While there’s some truth to the old Schoolhouse Rocks video, it’s a simplification. Of course, it is meant for little kids, so you might expect that. But what if you’re trying to teach high school students about how a bill actually becomes a law?

Enter THOMAS. THOMAS is a vast database of information maintained by the Library of Congress. It contains (just about) everything you might want to know about a public law, bill, or resolution as it meanders through our legislative process.

One of the cool things is that you can find any law, bill, or resolution, and immediately see a list of all Congressional action on that bill. Take, for example, the fairly ordinary example of Public Law 111-1. This was the fairly routine first official action of the 111th Congress in 2009. In one day, the Senate took up and passed the bill. The next day, the House took up and passed the bill. Within a week, it was signed by the President. Now that’s pretty quick and simple.

By contrast, consider the example of Public Law 111-148. What’s that? You don’t know what that is? Well, you might know it better as the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” AKA Obama Care. You can follow every twisting, winding, step of the way from it’s introduction in the House on September 17, 2009, to it’s lengthy consideration in the Senate, to it’s final passage in the house.

The Senate part is really interesting here, at least for a political geek like me. The debate in the Senate went on for well over a solid month, and there were a handful of cloture motions filed. Man, those guys like to talk.

Oh, and you can also find a record of how everyone voted for any tallied vote (a Yeas and Nays or a Roll Call vote). Why wait for the newspaper to break down a vote on a controversial bill – why don’t you follow a Congressman’s voting record yourselves…? Might be an interesting project. Hmm…

This is a great resource for planning as a teacher, if you want in depth information about the legislative process. It’s also a great research tool for students, for example of you create a webquest or assignment about Congress. I’m thinking about having my students create a flowchart or infographic of how a specific bill becomes a law to illustrate the messiness of the legislative process.

How would you use the THOMAS database in your planning or directly with students in class?