How a Bill Becomes a Law (Revised)

Forget what you learned in Government 101 (or math class for that matter), because in Congress these days, a negative plus a negative equals a positive. And even though R's control everything, a House "yea" plus a Senate "yea" can still equal a firm "no" when the White House horns in. A quick lesson:

Our story begins this past spring, when the Labor Department announced a modest change in the rules affecting overtime pay. These new rules, which could take effect as early as 2004 and didn't require congressional action, prevent white-collar workers earning more than $65,000 a year from collecting overtime pay while simultaneously raising the salary bar -- from $8,060 to $22,100 -- under which employers must pay time and a half. The latter provision, which the administration says would make 1.3 million workers eligible for overtime, sounds good, but it functions even better as a diversion from the pay cut that an estimated 8 million workers would suffer if their overtime were offed.

Even GOP legislators felt queasy about eliminating overtime. In September, the Senate passed an amendment to the Labor-Housing and Human Services appropriations bill that blocked the new rules, and the House followed suit with a similar provision in October as the bill headed to conference, presumably to iron out the differences between the two chambers. The White House was mightily steamed, and screamed "veto" if the provision escaped conference unscathed. Soon the bill was combined with six other departmental appropriations into an omnibus monstrosity. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) warned the White House "not to screw around with this thing," advice that the White House promptly ignored. The committee caved, and thus the judgment of both chambers, poof, magically disappeared. Obliterating overtime was on again. As one House aide said, the White House "got 98 percent of what they wanted and were looking for the other 2 percent." What they got, in the end, was an $820 billion bill that the Senate couldn't find the votes to pass before it adjourned for the holidays.

And that, class, is the new way a bill becomes a law. Or doesn't.