Legislative Purposes and Motives

Author:Abner J. Mikva

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Article I of the Constitution vests all legislative powers in the Congress of the United States. Congress is thus ordained to be the policymaking arm of the government. Since Congress exercises this authority through the separate flexing of 435 members of the HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES and the 100 members of the SENATE, the statutes passed by Congress are always collective works?written, amended, and propounded by many. As a result, discerning a single purpose or motive for most statutes is not easy.

An individual member of Congress proposes legislation to solve a problem. As that proposal winds its way through the legislative process, many forces affect the proposal and its meaning. Witnesses favoring and opposing the proposal testify before committees, and their testimony may present an interpretation altogether different from that intended by the proposal's sponsor. While the bill remains in committee, amendments may be offered and voted upon, further changing the purposes or effects of the proposal. Constituents, hearing about the proposal, will express their views to their representatives, voicing still other potentially competing concerns and perceptions about the proposal. After the proposal comes out of the committee, frequently in amended form, it is further refined and amended in floor debate. Again, the purposes and perceptions of the legislators are vast and varied.

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Once the proposal is approved in one chamber, the whole process is replicated in the other chamber. If further amendments are adopted in the second chamber, the differences between the two chambers' versions are ironed out in a "conference committee," consisting of legislators from both chambers. Only when the House and Senate approve an identical bill does the proposal go to the President for his approval.

With such a tortuous journey to complete, a piece of legislation rarely survives its odyssey with a clear purpose intact. As a result, judges and lawyers must devote much of their time and attention to the process of interpreting statutes. Although the judges, lawyers, and lawmakers have developed many rules and strictures for performing this task, there is much disagreement on what rules or strictures apply in a particular case.

Sometimes a legislative body will seek to ease the task of interpretation by putting a "preamble" or "statement of purposes" into the statute. Unfortunately, such efforts frequently end up as broad...

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