Jerry Kopel


How do you keep a House bill from passing the House? Well, there is a right way and a wrong way. The right way is by debate, denying the sponsor the needed votes. The wrong way is to steal the bill. And the wrong way might still be available.

The three stages of life are childhood, adulthood and "gee, you're looking great!" For legislation the stages are the idea, the bill, and the statute.

When the chief sponsor of a bill hands it over to the House Chief Clerk or Senate Secretary with names of the co-sponsors, the bill becomes the "original bill". What is next seen by legislators and the public are copies of the original bill.

Why call it an "original bill"? It's probably to produce the same chain of custody required for evidence in a criminal case. If you can't show where possession of a supposed drug was at any point of time, chances are it won't be allowed into evidence. A similar event could hamper proof of validity of a statute. The original bill is followed through passage in the House and Senate always with a written trail documenting who has possession.

What happens if the "original" of the bill is lost or missing or stolen as it goes through the process of becoming a law ?

Many decades ago, such an event was considered a catastrophe. Former legislator Harold McCormick who served in both the House and Senate, once wrote about what he titled the "The Last Stolen Bill".

"In 1961-62 the Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives was Gene Manzanares. One of his duties was to protect all of the bills in his care, for a lost bill was a dead bill. Gene took his duty very seriously. Unfortunately for him, one of those bill was the object of special scorn and opposition from Rep. Andres Lucas.

"On a friendly front-desk visit, Andy notices the hated bill - open and unguarded - on the desk of the very busy Chief Clerk. With a smile he quietly slipped the bill under his arm.

"Still smiling, he then quietly slipped out through the main door of the House chamber. Manzanares looked at his desk, looked at the closing door, and screamed at the top of his voice, "Stop that man!!"

"His search was in vain until Andy came back to the chamber, still smiling. The Chief Clerk demanded the bill, only to be told by Lucas that he had flushed it into oblivion. While Manzanares raced to check every restroom on the second floor, the House was now laughing.

"The charade ended when Lucas finally pulled the bill from his pocket and gave it back to the distraught Manzanares. Later in the session legislation was passed to permit the replacement of lost (or stolen) bills. Chief Clerks, Senate Secretaries and committee chairs still enjoy this protection during an often over-burdened day in the legislature."

Sen. McCormick was only partly correct. The Secretary of the Senate and Chief Clerk of the House both have a process to guard original bills and report to the Senate President or House Speaker if a bill is missing. But only the Senate rules give protection to (1) Senate bills and (2) to House bills that have already passed the House and are lodged in the Senate.

The key words are contained in Senate Rule 25 (l). "The physical loss or misplacement of a bill shall not deem the bill lost." There is a process provided to certify a true and correct copy to "be considered in place of the original bill".

I searched (and had others in "high places" search) the House rules and the House-Senate Joint Rules for a similar process. We found none. I don't think the Chief Clerk of the House has any power to solve this beyond the rule requiring the Chief Clerk to notify the Speaker.

There is a catch-all in the House rules. Perhaps it would work, but it is not a sure thing. House Rule 46 states "Any matter not covered by these rules shall be governed by decision of the Speaker, subject to the right of appeal by any member as in these rules provided for."

But it certainly would be better for the House leadership to presently prepare for introduction on convening of the 2005 General Assembly, a rule similar to the Senate rule on missing bills.

(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.)

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