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Legislative Procedure

The procedure by which legislation is enacted varies within the following general structure.

A constitution is the basic charter for governments in the U.S. legal system. Constitutions typically specify that some kinds of legislation, like a capital expenditure, require an extraordinary vote, such as passage by two-thirds rather than by a simple majority. Three separate readings, or announcements, of a bill to the full house, are commonly required before a vote can be taken. Some constitutions require a detailed reading each time, but legislatures have found ways to circumvent this mandate.

Constitutions often require an affirmative vote by a majority of all the members of a house, not merely those present, in order to pass a bill. They can also require that the names of members voting aye and nay be recorded in the journal of the legislative body. Constitutions can authorize the executive to VETO legislation, and establish a procedure for the legislature to override a veto. Sometimes a specific period of time is prescribed for the legislative session or term, and all work must be completed before expiration of the session.

It is common for a constitution to require that a bill pertain to only one subject, which must be expressed in the title of the bill. For example, An Act to Increase the State Sales Tax from Six to Seven Percent is a proper title for a bill that does exactly that and nothing else. This requirement efficiently packages legislative work, significantly affecting procedure, order, and efficiency. It does not apply to the U.S. Congress, but often applies to state and local legislatures.

Each legislature adopts its own rules to detail the organization and procedure of its body. A standard version of legislative rules is often adopted to cover any situation not governed by a specific rule. Legislatures frequently need to depart from regular procedure in order to accomplish tasks. Therefore, special rules usually provide for the suspension of normal procedure, when necessary. A rules suspension can be allowed only by a two-thirds vote.

Some of the work of the legislature can be accomplished by resolution rather than by bill. A resolution is used to settle internal matters or to make a public pronouncement without enacting a law. Resolutions are used to adopt the rules of the house, to establish committees, to initiate investigations, and to authorize and hire legislative employees. Even more mundane daily work can be accomplished by a motion on the floor. A motion lacks the formality of a resolution in that it cannot be formally announced and printed in the record.

A resolution takes one of several forms. A senate resolution or assembly resolution is adopted by only one house. A joint resolution originates in one house and then is passed in the other house, having the full force of official legislative action. This is the customary form for proposing state constitutional amendments and ratifying amendments to the U.S. Constitution. A concurrent resolution, like a joint resolution, originates in one house and is assented to by the other. It lacks the legal effect of a normally adopted joint resolution, and is often used to express an opinion. Petitions from state legislatures to the president or to the U.S. Congress are drawn as concurrent resolutions. Commendations to persons who have performed socially significant deeds and to victorious athletic teams are typical concurrent resolutions.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Labor Department - Employment And Training Administration to Legislative PowerLegislation - Legislative Bills, Sources Of Legislation, Legislative Procedure, The Enactment Of A Bill, Executive Veto Power