Bill Atkinson: I’m just a bill ... and I’m raising cain from Capitol Hill
Jack Shelton died the other day.
I will pause while you Google who he was.
The singer-trumpeter-actor-comedian was probably best known for his work with Merv Griffin and that ABC Saturday morning staple, “Schoolhouse Rock.” Raise your hand if you remember Conjunction Junction and those other ditties that educated and entertained you as a child, and now songlock-torture you for hours whenever you read or hear a word or two featured in those little annoying nuggets.
One of the most famous of those skits was “I’m Just a Bill” that was designed to teach kids how government works. Jack Shelton sang in that and played the voice of the bill.
“I’m just a bill, oh yeah, I’m only a bill, and if they vote for me on Capitol Hill …”
In a nutshell, the segment explained how legislation becomes law in Washington and it focused on something as simple as making school buses stop at railroad crossings. Ol’ Bill was presented to both the House and Senate, which passed him unanimously and then went to the White House where the president signed him without hesitation.
Perhaps in the mind of a 1970s, 8-year-old sugared up from all that frosted cereal he had just downed before loudly singing and slam-dancing to the little ditty, that is how government is supposed to work. But fast-forward to today’s times and try to get something like that on TV now. The process is not that simple anymore.
First of all, “Schoolhouse Rock” would have to be expanded from a little 5-minute segment to upwards of 30 minutes or longer in order to cover how legislation really gets through. And it is far more than just idea-draft-vote-approve-sign-law procedure, now.
If “I’m Just a Bill” were to be produced in today’s turbulent political climate, it might look something like this:
First, the concept would have to run through social media to determine if it is actually worth pursuing. After that, a robocall blast would go out to a cross-section of the representative’s constituency to take their temperature on it.
Colleagues opine about its strengths and weakness on the morning talk-shows and party leadership takes part in a “CNN Town Hall” to gauge how it will affect the party’s standing in terms of strengthening their stronghold. Included in that process are all the robocalls and TV ads screaming at key constituencies to “let Senator Smith know where you stand on this.”
If you’re lucky, someone like the president of the United States will tweet about it, sending even more voters into their respective political corners.
And that is all before the bill is even introduced. Once it is drafted, a whole new process kicks in.
The representatives do a little horse-trading and back-scratching to make sure the bill gets before the “right” committee, all the time praying for a preferred placement on the agenda. More robocalls, Facebook posts, tweets and sound-bites follow.
Three months later, the committee takes up the bill, already knowing its fate. That sucker is either dying here or it will be sent to the full chamber for an even more public fate. C-SPAN televises live floor debates and counts down on-screen how long it takes for Democrats and Republicans to vote on it.
Are you still with us, kids?
If the bill makes it through, the entire process is repeated on the other side of Capitol Hill. In the meantime, the president continues to tweet about it, and spin doctors/talking heads continue to appear on the talk shows blessing it or blasting it.
If the bill survives Capitol Hill, it’s then off to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for even more politicking. If the president likes it, the president signs it and all is well. If the president doesn’t like it, the president will either veto it and tweet-dare Congress to override it, or try to incorporate it into some other legislative package.
In the meantime, the robocalls and social-media blasts continue.
Get the picture now, kids?
Perhaps Mr. Shelton, God rest his soul, could have updated the 1970s “Schoolhouse Rock” song to go something like, “I’m just a bill, yeah, I’m only a bill. But I’m raising cain from Capitol Hill.”
Run that over and over through your mind as you try to sleep tonight.
Bill Atkinson is interim editor of The Progress-Index in Petersburg, Virginia. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @BAtkinsonpi.