How a Bill Becomes Law

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Legislation Is Introduced

The first step for a bill to become a law is that it is written into a piece of legislation to be introduced either into the House of Representatives or the Senate. (On the state level, the process is very similar because all of the states except Nebraska have a House and a Senate.)

When introduced to the House, the legislation is handed to the clerk of the House or placed in the hopper. (The hopper is is simply a box on the clerk’s desk where members of the house can place bills they wish to introduce).

In the Senate, members must be recognized by the presiding officer to introduce the bill during the morning hours. This is a 90-minute period on Monday and Tuesday in which a bill can be introduced. At this point, if any senators object to the introduction of the bill, it is postponed until the following morning hour.

Either way, once the bill is introduced it is assigned a number. In the House it receives a number following HR (e.g., HR 1) and in the Senate it receives an S followed by the number (e.g., S 1). The bill is also labeled with the sponsor or sponsors’ name and sent to the Government Printing Office (GPO) to be printed and distributed. One or more senators or representatives can sponsor a bill. Other members may join the sponsorship later in the process as well up until around voting time.

 

Committee Action

After introduction, the bill is referred to a committee that is appropriate to its content; the Speaker of the House or the presiding officer in the Senate chooses this committee. They can be referred to multiple committees, divided amongst committees, etc. Time limits may also be imposed on how long a committee is allowed to investigate a newly introduced bill. If the legislation is never acted upon by the committee (by passing the time limit, for instance) it is essentially killed. However, bills in the House can be released from committee without there being a committee vote if a petition is signed by a majority of the House membership (218 members) asking to release the bill from committee. This is called a Discharge Petition.

While in committee, the bill goes through the following steps:

  1. The committee gets comments from government agencies that are related to the purpose of the bill.

  2. The chairman of the committee can delegate the bill to subcommittees.

  3. All subcommittee findings are reported to the committee.

  4. The committee may hold hearings concerning the bill. Hearings often invite experts and public comment.

  5. The bill is voted on by the full committee.

  6. If the committee is in favor of the bill it holds a “mark-up” session where members make revisions and additions. If substantial amendments are required, the committee can discard the bill and introduce a “clean bill” with the revisions. The clean bill is given a new bill number, and the bill restarts the process from the beginning with the proposed amendments.

  7. If the bill passes a committee vote, the staff of the committee will prepare a report to explain why they favor the bill (or its amendments). Any committee members that oppose the bill may write a dissenting report. This report is sent back to the full chamber (The House or Senate) for floor action.–However in the House there is usually one more step:  The bill must go through the Rules committee who may place constraints or limits on the process, for instance, setting time limits on debates, and preventing any amendments. 

 

Floor Action

Floor action really consists of three major phases:

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  1. Calendar

At this phase, legislation is placed on the Calendar.

In the House, the bill is placed on one of four House Calendars. They are typically placed in order they were reported but do not always go to the floor of the House in that order (certainly, some never make it at all). The Speaker of the House, along with the Majority Leader, ultimately decides when and if the bill will reach the Floor.  “Floor” means consideration by the entire chamber.

In the Senate, legislation is placed on the Legislative Calendar (except treaties and nominations, which use the Executive Calendar). The Majority leader handles the scheduling. The bills then go to the Senate Floor whenever the majority of the Senate chooses.

 

  1. Debate

In the House, debate is limited by the rules set by the Rules Committee. The bill is debated and amended, though not technically passed, by the Committee of the Whole (fancy term for all the members of the House). The Committee that sponsored the bill guides the debate and equal amount of time is given to those who approve of and those who oppose of the bill.

Any amendments added to the bill in the House must be germane (relevant to the bill) and not riders (additions that are not relevant to the bill). Then the bill can be voted on. A quorum call is called to ensure that enough House members are present (218 members). If there is not a quorum, the House will either adjourn or send the Sergeant at Arms to round up missing members to reach the minimum of 218 members.

In the Senate, the debate is unlimited unless cloture is invoked. To explain cloture, we must first cover the filibuster. This is when a senator “talks a bill to death.” They are allowed to speak, essentially unlimited, to delay or prevent the vote on a bill.

Cloture is generally used to end a filibuster. It requires 3/5 of the full senate to invoke. Once invoked, the Senate is required to vote on the bill within 30 more hours of debate – essentially, if someone “hijacks” the senate with a filibuster on a bill that is otherwise largely supported by the senate.

In the Senate, amendments do not have to be germane and riders are common. In other words, bills often have irrelevant hitchhikers.

 

  1. Vote

Now the bill is voted on. Since bills can be proposed by either chamber of Congress (House or Senate). If it passes the chamber that first proposed it, usually requiring a simple majority, it is sent to the other chamber. If either chamber of Congress does not pass the bill, it dies.

If both chambers pass the same exact bill, then it is sent directly to the President. If they both pass bills that are similar but not exactly the same, they will be sent to the Conference Committee – this is the destination of the majority of legislation.

 

Conference Committee

When both chambers of Congress pass similar (but not exact) bills, they jointly form a conference committee to work out the differences between the two bills. The committee is usually made up of senior members who are appointed by their presiding officers, who originally dealt with the bill. Those legislators work to maintain their version of the bill.

In the case that the conference reaches a compromise, it will prepare a written report. This will be submitted to each chamber. The report must be approved by both the House and the Senate for it to be sent along to the President.

 

The President

Once both chambers pass the same bill or the conference committee has reached a compromise that has been approved by their respective chambers, the bill is then sent along to the President. The President can now sign the bill into law.

The President has 10 days (while Congress is in session) to do this. If he does not sign the bill by then it is called a Pocket Veto and it does not become a law. If the President vetoes the bill, it is then sent back to each chamber of Congress along with a note listing the President’s reasons. The chamber that originally drafted the legislation can attempt to override the veto with a vote of over 2/3 of the members present. If the veto for the bill is overridden in both chambers, it then becomes a law.

 

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