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Writing the Nation's Laws
By Larry Teitelbaum

Thirty-Five Years On, Strokoff Still Loves The Nitty-Gritty of Writing the Nation's Laws

Sandra Strokoff There are showhorses and workhorses in Washington. Sandra Strokoff CW'71, L'75 falls into the latter camp. As legislative counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives, Strokoff runs a thoroughbred operation that drafts almost all the legislation produced in the lower chamber.

And that is a big, no make that enormous, job.

Washington, D.C. is not the only place that's been snowed under this year. Strokoff's office has handled an avalanche of bills, with 1,750 amendments alone to health care reform.

So, Congress has been extremely active this session, and that has tested the capacity of the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Counsel, forcing Strokoff to conscript volunteers to augment the efforts of the small number of attorneys assigned to health care.

But one thing that has not been tested is Strokoff's commitment to the only job she's known since graduating from Penn Law School 35 years ago. "You're involved in drafting the country's laws. People come to you for expertise that no one else has," says Strokoff, who was appointed the first female legislative counsel in history last July. "You have to be willing to work behind the scenes. We don't get a lot of credit for it, but you have to be comfortable with that."

Strokoff, who teaches Legislative Analysis and Drafting at George Washington University School of Law, specializes in patent, copyright, and trademark law, jurisdiction of the federal courts, lobbying and ethics, international trade law, and international relations.

As a consequence of her experience, she has written the second edition of the Legislative Drafter's Desk Reference, a book that explores the intricacies of committing laws to paper, or in this day and age, to computer.

Here are four of her simple secrets to writing good legislation:

  • Know existing law.
  • Reach out to experts to define what the bill should (and can) accomplish.
  • Write with concision.
  • Define terms, and be consistent with them.

In addition, she says, drafters should ask themselves a series of questions: To whom will the bill apply? Who is going to administer it? How is it going to be enforced? When will it take effect?

Finally, for her office at least, it's important to know what's going on in the U.S. Senate and to understand parliamentary procedure.

Strokoff oversees 63 people. By necessity, she devotes much of her time to administration. However, she sets aside as much time as possible for drafting, which she still loves to do. She doesn't know how many bills she's written, but guesses thousands, some with historical significance. Two examples are the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided reparations to Japanese-Americans interned in World War II, and the Panama Canal Act of 1979. The latter was necessary to implement the Panama Canal Treaty and turned out to be a nail-biter.

The bill passed the House and the Senate, and appeared ready to sail through conference agreement and go to President Carter's desk for his signature. Unexpectedly, the agreement failed on the House floor and the bill had to be rewritten, just days before the Treaty was to go into effect.

Rare by today's standards the bill ran but 110 pages, yet managed to cover all aspects of the Panama Canal Treaty. Compare that to the 2,014-page health care reform bill.

Strokoff says bills are harder to pass these days, so legislators package things and bills get bigger. Which makes her job even harder. PLJ