I’m Aimee the Attorney, with answers to your legal questions. In my recent interview with Mark Ellebracht, a member of the Missouri House of Representatives, I got a chance to find out more about how laws are made and what legislators do. Here’s a brief look at what he told me.
What Does a Lawmaker Do?
Many people only have a vague idea of what lawmakers do, so I asked Rep. Ellebracht to explain. He said that lawmakers have two main roles. First, they have the role of serving as a liaison between their constituents and state departments. For example, if the Missouri Department of Revenue didn’t get your tax returns to you in a timely manner, you could contact your representative. They would then try to find out why it was delayed and hopefully get you the result you want in an appropriate amount of time.
Their second role is to be on committees and vote on legislation. There are several different types of committees. Joint committees include both representatives and senators. Special committees are established to deal with specific issues, such as tort reform bills, during a legislative session. Standing committees have and will be a part of the legislative process as long as the legislature continues in its current form. Some of the standing committees include education, economic development, agriculture, and the judiciary committee.
In the committees, the lawmakers can present bills and read the bills that are presented. They discuss the bills with each other and hear public input on them. They then vote on whether the bill should pass to the rules committee to determine the financial impact of the bill. If the bill is called to the floor, the representative who presented it reads it, and the bill is perfected.
Lawyers as Legislators
Many legislators start out as lawyers, and that’s true of Rep. Ellebracht as well. He said that lawyers have a unique perspective on the making of laws. For instance, when a law is being formulated, a lawyer can look it and bring up important questions about how the law will work and how it will be enforced. They can help create a law that makes it possible for judges to give clear instructions to the jury and handle sentencing appropriately. After all, if a law can’t be enforced, it can’t be effective. So, a lawyer who is a legislator has special knowledge and experience that allows them to help ensure the laws make sense within the reality of the justice system.
Rep. Ellebracht also mentioned that being a legislator is very like being a lawyer. As an attorney, he would work with the prosecution to come to an agreement that would benefit both the defendant and the state. As a minority member of the House, Rep. Ellebracht works with people from the Republican majority to come to an agreement that benefits both sides there as well. However, even though lawyers can contribute significantly to the legislative process, Rep. Ellebracht said he believes that the government needs many different voices to carry out the will of the people.
Involvement of Lobbyists
Rep. Ellebracht shed some light on how representatives work with lobbyists, too. He explained that, although lobbyists for corporations often make the news, there are actually lobbyists from a wide range of industries and concerns. Not only do companies like Ford Motor Company have lobbyists, but there are also lobbyists for a cleaner environment, climate crisis, and other important causes.
Lobbyists typically present the representatives with a packet of information about their industry or cause. The legislator may start with that packet, but they go further by researching the subject on their own to determine if the lobbyist’s information is reliable or not. Mr. Ellebracht also said that, like any other profession, there are lobbyists that are more trustworthy than others. By building relationships with the lobbyists, the representative can learn about the issues as well as determine the value of the lobbyist’s information and position more easily. And, it’s always up to the representative to work for what is best for the people, even if the lobbyists put pressure on them to do otherwise.
How Does a Bill Become a Law?
To illustrate how a bill becomes a law, Rep. Ellebracht told the story of a bill he presented. In Missouri, the law has been that if you stayed in the county jail, you would be charged a fee for board during your stay. Then, if you couldn’t pay your board bill, you would be put back in jail, where you would again incur board fees. Rep. Ellebracht’s bill was designed to eliminate the jail time for failure to pay board fees.
They started with a one-page bill, which they pre-filed in December. The bill was read in committee. Then, it went to the rules committee. The bill was amended to include additional things. The language was tweaked. Different legislators made subtle changes. Then, the bill went to the floor, where it was amended further. Some lawmakers suggested additions for things they wanted to see but weren’t enough for a stand-alone bill. Through this process, the bill got more supporters, and finally the bill was passed. After that, the bill went to the Senate, where this whole process started all over again.
By the time the bill passed in the Senate, it had grown from a simple one-page bill that prevented people from getting warrants for failing to pay their board to a larger bill that also added a surcharge to every civil process and allowed judges to no longer be bound by minimum sentencing. Once the bill passed, it was sent to Governor Parson’s, who signed it into law.
I enjoyed speaking with Representative Ellebracht. As one of Missouri’s lawmakers and an attorney as well, he has a unique perspective on bills, laws, and what it takes to make them happen.