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The Legislative Process: How a Bill Becomes a Law

19 August 2008
Written by

This is a post that we have published on the Voter's Speakeasy a couple of times over the last year or so, and we are posting it again here. Many folks are not particularly familiar with the paths bills normally take to become law, and as usership of our site and blog increase, we want to make this post easily accessible to those of you who may need a refresher on this topic.

Most people learn how a bill becomes a law around junior high or even elementary school (Click here for a YouTube presentation of the Schoolhouse Rock video of a bill trying to become a law). But for many of us, that's a long time ago, and most teachers didn't get that in depth. You may remember that a bill passes the House and Senate and is signed by the president and then becomes a law. You may remember that if the President vetoes the bill, Congress can override the veto. If you remember these things, you've got the bare bones knowledge that you need to begin to understand the legislative process. We'll go a little more in depth here. Remember, sometimes legislation does not take a well-worn route to become a law, and there is always politics to be played. Sometimes agreements are reached between the parties that dictate strict debate times or prohibit amendments, etc. Almost every step described below is a generalization and may occasionally be altered or bypassed in specific instances.

Before we get too in depth here, we had better make clear that we are talking about the path a bill takes. Most people do not know the differences between a bill, a (simple) resolution, a joint resolution, and a concurrent resolution. Click here to see what the differences are between these four forms of legislation. Some of the information about bills is repeated here. Also, be aware that different state legislatures may use different procedures. We are talking here about Congress.

Bills are the most common form of legislation, and probably the only form you were taught much about in junior high and high school. Bills can be introduced in either the House or the Senate. Let's look at a bill that starts in the House. Most bills do, in fact, originate in this chamber.

A representative in the House writes the bill (or the representative's staff and legal team write the bill) and introduces it to the House. This representative is the (primary) sponsor of the bill. Other representatives that strongly favor the bill may also sign onto it as cosponsors. There can be only one sponsor, but there can be an unlimited number of cosponsors. Bills do not need cosponsors, and sometimes don't have any. (Technical note: Bills are usually "read" three times. Typically, the title is read, not the entire bill. The first reading of the bill is here, when it is introduced. The second reading is done when the bill is back on the floor of the chamber, and the third reading is done immediately before a floor vote on the bill.)

At the time the sponsor introduces the bill to the House, it is usually sent down to an appropriate committee. For instance, a bill on interrogation techniques may be sent down to an intelligence committee. Most bills go to committee and are never heard from again. When a bill has no future, it is said to have died. If a bill is lucky, the committee will take up consideration of the bill. Basically the members of the committee meet and discuss what they like and dislike about the bill. They also frequently amend the bill. Amendments at the committee level do not need to be voted on by everyone in the House. They are voted on by the people on the committee. After the committee is done discussing and amending the bill, they have a committee vote on whether or not to pass the bill. If they vote to not pass the bill, the bill is usually dead. If they vote to pass the bill, the bill goes to the whole House. A bill may wait a long time before the full chamber (House or Senate) begins discussing it.

To make things a little more complicated, committees have subcommittees. A health committee, for instance, may have a subcommittee on Indian health. Subcommittees are made up of a handful of people from the regular committee. If a bill passes a subcommittee, it goes to the committee and is subject to the committee actions described above.

So let's say now that your bill is lucky enough to have made it out of the committee it was sent to. Now your bill can do one of three things. It can be sent back down to be debated by another applicable committee/subcommittee, it can die waiting for the chamber to debate it, or it can be debated by the chamber. Any action that takes place on a bill while it is being considered by the entire chamber is called a floor action. Amendments here are floor amendments, votes are floor votes, debate is floor debate, etc.

If your bill is debated on the floor, it is once again subject to amendments. These are floor amendments and are voted on by everyone present in the House. Eventually, someone will make a motion to pass the bill, and someone else will second that motion, and a passage vote will take place. If the bill fails its passage vote, it will die. If it passes its passage vote, it will go to the Senate. The Senate will have their first reading of the bill and send it down to an appropriate committee.

The committees and subcommittees in the Senate work the same way that they do in the House. The legislative processes in the House and Senate are very similar. There is one difference, however. In the Senate, senators can filibuster bills. This means a senator can take the floor and talk about the bill as long as she wants. In fact she can talk about anything at all. During a particularly famous filibuster Senator Thurmond read the phone book to the Senate. The only rule when filibustering is that you cannot stop. There are no sleep breaks, no bathroom breaks, no breaks at all. The purpose of a filibuster is to kill a bill. A senator who filibusters is hoping that supporters of the bill will agree to vote against it just to shut him up and get on to other business. The Senate can override a filibuster by a 60 vote supermajority. This is called a cloture vote. If that vote passes with 60 yeas, cloture is invoked and the debate is then limited to 30 hours, but a passage vote is often taken right away.

You may notice that some bills seem to take 60 votes in the Senate to pass. This is often an agreement between the majority and minority parties, because neither wishes to take time out to have a filibuster.

Usually when the bill does pass the Senate, it has been amended somewhere, either by the subcommittee, the committee, or on the floor. If there are any changes to the bill at all, it isn't ready for the President. Bills must pass both chambers in identical form. Usually at this point, a conference is called, where a handful of senators and a handful of representatives meet and hammer out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. If they can't reach an agreement the bill dies. If they do reach an agreement, the compromise text is sent back to the House and Senate, where it receives floor passage votes. If it passes each chamber, it goes to the President.

If you have any questions about the legislative process in Congress, or even in your own state (states are generally slightly different), please feelfree to call us at 1-888-VOTE-SMART (1-888-868-3762), and we will be happy to go over this with you. You can also email us at comments@votesmart.org if you don't like the phone.

Thank you for taking the time to educate yourself about our government. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free...it expects what never was and never will be."

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