Bills, drafts and Web access

As bills work their way from proposals to laws, they are posted for public perusal on the Library of Congress' Web site, "Thomas." But much of the legislative activity that shapes the final law never makes it onto Thomas.

"Discussion drafts," "committee prints," "chairmen's marks" and amendments to bills often contain important changes that the public usually does not see until they become part of the final law — and it is too late to challenge them.

However, the various drafts and markups, which often include add-ons for special interest groups, are frequently made available to lobbyists. In one famous example, lobbyists shared insider information on the 1996 Telecommunications Act by posting it on the regional Bell operating companies' Web site.

The first posting on Thomas occurs when a bill is introduced in the House or Senate. After that, the bill heads through subcommittees and committees. If it survives — and many don't — the bill and a committee report are posted on Thomas.

The bill then goes to the House or Senate floor, where it may be amended. If it passes, it is again posted on Thomas. Then the bill goes to the other chamber for resolution.

The House version and Senate version often have significant differences, so they are sent to a conference committee, where differences are resolved. The conference is also where last-minute add-ons and special interest deals occur — out of public sight. A conference report is posted, and the bill goes back to the House and Senate for a final vote. The final version is then posted on Thomas before the bill goes to the president for his signature.

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