7 minute read

Congress of the United States

How A Bill Becomes A Law

Before a federal law can exist in the United States, it must first be introduced as a bill in Congress, and then pass through a series of steps. At any of these steps it may be effectively vetoed, or nullified, if it does not attract a majority of support. As a result, only a small percentage of all bills succeed in becoming laws. In the 103d Congress (1993–95), for example, 8,544 public bills and joint resolutions (generally the same as bills) were introduced, and only 465 became laws.

Introduction of bills Bills must be introduced, or sponsored, by a member of the House or Senate. Most bills are introduced simultaneously in both houses in order to speed their passage. Sponsored bills are placed in the "hopper," a mahogany box near the House Speaker's podium. A bill may be cosponsored by other members of Congress in order to earn wider political support. Bills receive special designation codes to identify their house of origin and the order in which they have been received. For example, the code H.R. 171 designates the 171st House bill of that congressional term, and S. 52 indicates the fifty-second Senate bill.

Ideas for bills may come from a variety of sources other than members of Congress, including the president, other government officials, interest groups, scholars, constituents, staff, and state and local officials. Although a member of Congress must sponsor a bill, anyone may draft a bill. Proposed bills are often drafted by executive agencies and special interest groups. Also, experts in the Senate and House offices of legislative counsel help members of Congress draft bills.

Frequently, bills are grouped together into comprehensive bills, also called omnibus bills or package bills, to increase their chances of approval. This practice has become increasingly common, and as a result, Congress has enacted fewer but lengthier laws in recent decades.

Bills may be either private or public. Public bills include those authorizing spending for the federal government and those establishing the federal laws applicable to the general public, including criminal laws. Private bills deal with more specialized matters such as the claims of individuals regarding land titles and citizenship. If approved, these bills become private laws.

Although most laws originate as bills, some originate as joint resolutions, designated H.R.J. Res. or S.J. Res. Joint resolutions must pass through the same hurdles as bills, including required acceptance by both houses and the president, but generally deal with more limited matters. Constitutional amendments begin as joint resolutions, though they require ratification by three-fourths of the states instead of presidential approval.

Bills introduced in Congress must be approved by both houses in identical form during the congressional term in which they are introduced. (Each congressional term is two years; the 100th Congress, for example, officially began its term at noon on January 3, 1987, and ended it at noon on January 3, 1989.) Thus, a bill that is introduced during the 105th Congress must be passed before the beginning of the 106th Congress. If it is not passed during that congressional term, it must be reintroduced in the next Congress.

Committee action After a bill has been introduced in the House or Senate, it is referred to an appropriate committee by the House Speaker or the presiding officer in the Senate. Committee referral can be a crucial determinant of a bill's success. If a bill is referred to a hostile or unreceptive committee, it may fail to be reported out of the committee, or be passed.

A committee assigns the bill to a subcommittee, which may hold hearings to consider the bill's merits. The subcommittee often amends the bill, in a procedure known as markup. After the subcommittee completes its work, the committee votes to approve and report the bill with amendments; to make further amendments; or to table the bill—that is, take no more action on it.

House Rules Committee House bills, unlike Senate bills, must pass through a rules committee before proceeding to the House floor. The House Rules Committee establishes the limits for debate and amendment of the bill, elements that can determine the bill's outcome. The Speaker of the House appoints all majority party members to the committee and exerts great influence over the committee and, as a result, the fate of legislation in the House.

Floor action Bills that are reported out of committee—including those that have passed through the House Rules Committee—proceed to the floor of the House and Senate.

The Speaker decides when the House will debate a bill. On the day that a bill is scheduled for debate, the House first votes on the rules of debate proposed by the Rules Committee. Once these have been approved, general debate begins. The typical length of general debate on the House floor is one to two hours, but for a controversial bill, debate may last four to ten hours. Each political party receives an equal amount of time to debate the bill.

After general debate, the bill proceeds to the amending phase. Here, House members engage in more lively debate as they attempt to win passage of the bill or kill it through the amendment process. Successful amendments can greatly alter proposed legislation, and even unsuccessful amendments can win significant publicity for a representative. During this process, House members vote on each amendment as it comes up for consideration.

Finally, after all amendments have been made, the House votes on the bill. Usually, this vote is recorded. Since 1973 the House has used an electronic voting system in which members insert a personalized card (roughly the size of a credit card) into one of more than forty voting stations on the House floor. They then press a button indicating whether their vote is Yea, Nay, or Present.

Because it is a much smaller body, the Senate maintains floor procedures that are much less formal than those of the House. The Senate allows each of its members more freedom to debate bills, and it allows the minority party to make more decisions than in the House.

Scheduling of bills in the Senate is determined jointly by the majority and minority party leadership, though the majority leader makes the final decisions. For most bills, the majority leader then obtains the unanimous consent of the Senate regarding the date a bill will be brought to the floor and the rules regarding its amendment and debate. Generally, senators are able to offer an unlimited number of floor amendments during debate. Debate is also theoretically unlimited; it does not end until all members are through talking. The Senate has a rule passed in 1917 called a cloture rule, which limits debate to thirty hours before a final vote is taken on a bill. The cloture rule is difficult to invoke because it requires the approval of sixty senators.

During floor debate, senators may engage in a practice called the filibuster, in which they speak on the floor for many hours in order to delay, defeat, or amend a bill. A senator may filibuster for as long as he or she can remain standing. Two senators may work together in a filibuster; when one tires, the other continues. In 1957 Senator STROM THURMOND, of South Carolina, then a Democrat, set the record for the longest solo filibuster in Senate history when he spoke for twenty-four hours and eighteen minutes in an attempt to defeat a CIVIL RIGHTS bill.

After debate is over, the Senate conducts a roll call vote to determine whether the bill passes or fails. In a roll call vote, each senator is asked to state aloud his or her vote on the bill.

Conference committee If the House and Senate versions of a bill differ, the two chambers form a conference committee to resolve the discrepancies. Roughly 10 to 15 percent of all bills—usually the most controversial ones—passed by Congress end up in a conference committee. Members of the conference committee are typically drawn from the committees that reported the bill. During the 1980s and 1990s, conference committees sometimes became quite large, involving as many as two hundred conferees when debating large budget measures. Party ratios on these committees reflect the ratios in Congress itself. Since 1975 conference meetings have been open to the public.

When the conference committee is done, a majority of conferees from each house sign the compromise bill and report it to Congress. The House and Senate then vote to approve the common bill. No amendments are allowed at this point. Because members have invested much time and effort in the bill by the time it has left a conference committee, it is nearly always approved.

Enactment into law Following approval by both houses of Congress, a bill is presented to the president for approval. Article I, Section 7, of the Constitution outlines the procedure for presidential judgment of legislation. The president has four options: sign the bill, which makes it law; VETO the bill and return it to Congress; refuse to take any action, in which case, after ten days, the bill becomes law without the president's signature; or, if less than ten days are left in the congressional term, "pocket veto" the bill by not signing it (because Congress has no time to take up the bill, the pocket veto kills the bill).

In the case of a normal veto, the bill must be approved again by Congress, this time by a two-thirds majority in each house. Because of this supermajority requirement, vetoes are difficult to override. No amendments can be made to a vetoed bill. Congress is not required to vote on a vetoed bill, and such bills are often simply referred to committee and tabled.


Joint Resolution.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Companies House to ConstituencyCongress of the United States - Speaker Of The House, History And Structure, Senate Majority Leader, How A Bill Becomes A Law