HOW A BILL BECOMES LAW
By The Issue Wonk
Abstract: The legislative process is filled with rules and regulations. Any member of Congress may introduce a bill. The proposal is then assigned to a committee or committees. Action is then taken on the floor of the chamber where the bill is initiated. After passing, the bill is sent to the other chamber. If the second chamber changes the bill, it then goes to a conference committee. The revised bill is then sent to both houses for final approval. It is then sent to the president for signing.
The legislative process is filled with rules and regulations. It is a very complicated process. Below is a summary; a very short summary. If you are interested in more detail, please see How Our Laws Are Made, Revised and Updated by Charles W. Johnson Parliamentarian, United States House of Representatives or the Senate’s Enactment of a Law.
Introduction: Any member of Congress may introduce a bill. The member who introduces a bill is known as the “primary sponsor.” Other members may co-sponsor the bill. In the House of Representatives, the bill’s sponsor introduces the bill by giving it to the clerk of the House or by placing it in a box, called the “hopper.” The clerk assigns a number to the bill -- H.R. for the House of Representatives and S. for the Senate. The bill is then sent to the Government Printing Office (GPO) and printed.
Committee Action: The bill is then assigned to a committee or committees. The most important phase of the legislative process is the action by committees. The committees provide the most intensive scrutiny of the bill as well as a forum for public input. There are, at present, 19 standing committees in the House and 16 in the Senate as well as several select committees.
Committees focus on different subject matters. For example, the Committee on the Judiciary in the House has jurisdiction over bills relating to judicial proceedings and similar categories, such as immigration, bankruptcy, and trademarks. Committees study the bill and often hear testimony from experts and interested people.
After committees have had hearings on a bill, and sometimes bills are given to a subcommittee to review, a vote of committee members is taken to determine whether they will (a) recommend to approve the bill, (b) recommend to not approve the bill, or (c) make amendments to the bill and recommend to approve it as amended. A committee may also “table” a bill; that is, not take any action on it and, thus, prevent further action on the bill.
Floor Action: When a bill is “released” from the committee, with or without amendments, it is sent to the floor of the house in which it originated. The Senate and House of Representatives procedures are different.
In the House, the bill is then placed on the appropriate Calendar for hearing by the Committee of the Whole. Hearings in the Committee of the Whole are scheduled, first, for general debate. The bill may be voted on quickly or the time for debate may be limited. Amendments may be prohibited. After general debate, there is a second, section-by-section reading of the bill, during which amendments may be offered to a section when it is read. Each amendment is voted on by the Committee of the Whole or the House may adopt a rule establishing a list of amendments to the bill and then the list is voted on. When this is done, there is a third reading of the bill with all amendments. If the bill passes, it goes to the Senate.
In the Senate bills that go to the floor for consideration are voted on in the order in which they come from the committees. However, an urgent bill may be pushed ahead by leaders of the majority party. When the Senate considers the bill, they can debate it indefinitely. When there is no more debate, the bill is voted on. If the bill passes, it goes to the house.
If a bill is agreed to in identical form by both the Senate and the House of Representatives, it is sent, in its final or “enrolled” form, to the president for consideration and signing.
Conference Committee: If, after a bill is passed out of one house and sent to the other house, and the second house amends the bill and passes it, then the bill must go to a conference committee, which is made up of members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The committee works out the differences between the two versions of the bill. The revised bill is then sent back to both houses for their final approval. Once approved, the bill is sent to the president.
Presidential Approval: The president has 10 days to sign the bill or veto it. If the president vetoes the bill, it can still become law if two-thirds of the Senate and two-thirds of the House of Representatives vote to “override” the veto. If, after 10 days (excluding Sundays), the President has not signed the bill and has not vetoed it, it automatically becomes law unless Congress adjourns, which prevents the bill from being returned. This is known as a "pocket veto.”
© The Issue Wonk, 2006