US: How a Bill Becomes a Law
Step 1: Legislation Introduced
Any Representative or Senator can introduce a piece of legislation.
- The bill is assigned a number (e.g. "HR 1" in the House of Representatives or "S 1" in the Senate).
- The bill is labeled with the sponsor's name.
- The bill is sent to the Government Printing Office and copies are made.
Step 2: Committee Action
The Speaker of the House or the presiding officer in the Senate refers the bill to the appropriate committee. Most often, the House or Senate parliamentarian makes the actual referral decision. Bills may be referred to more than one committee and may be split so that parts are sent to different committees.
The Speaker of the House may set time limits on committee deliberations. Bills are placed on the calendar of the committee to which they have been assigned. Failure to act on a bill is equivalent to killing it. Bills in the House can only be released from committee without a proper committee vote by a discharge petition signed by a majority of the House membership (218 members).
- A bill can be assigned to subcommittee(s) by the Chairman.
- Hearings may be held within the subcommittee(s).
- Subcommittees report their findings to the full committee.
- The full committee votes and the bill is "ordered to be reported."
- Each committee holds a "mark-up" session during which it makes revisions and additions. If substantial amendments are made, the committee can order the introduction of a "clean bill" which will include the proposed amendments. This new bill will have a new number and will be sent to the floor while the old bill is discarded. The chamber must approve, change, or reject all committee amendments before conducting a final passage vote.
- After the bill is reported, the committee staff prepares a written report explaining why they favor the bill and why they wish to see their amendments, if any, adopted. Committee members who oppose a bill sometimes write a dissenting opinion in the report. The report is sent back to the whole chamber and placed on the calendar.
In the House, most bills go to the Rules Committee before reaching the floor. The committee adopts rules that will govern the procedures under which the House will consider the bill. A "closed rule" sets strict time limits on debate and forbids the introduction of amendments. These rules can have major impacts on whether the bill passes. The rules committee can be bypassed in three ways:
- Members can move rules to be suspended (requires 2/3 vote).
- A discharge petition can be filed.
- The House can use a procedure in which each standing committee may bring up for consideration any bill that has been reported on the floor on or before the previous day. The procedure also limits debate for each subject matter to two hours.
Step 3: Floor Actions
Legislation is placed on the Calendar
House of Representatives
Bills are placed on one of four House Calendars. They are usually placed on the calendars in the order of which they are reported, yet they don't often come to floor in this order, and some bills never reach the floor at all. The Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader decide what will reach the floor and when.
Legislation is placed on the Legislative Calendar. There is also an Executive Calendar to manage treaties and nominations. Scheduling of legislation is the job of the Majority Leader. Bills can be brought to the floor whenever a majority of the Senate chooses.
House of Representatives
Debate is restricted by the rules formulated in the Rules Committee. A committee including all members of the House debates and amends the bill but cannot technically pass it. The Sponsoring Committee guides debate and divides time equally between proponents and opponents. The Committee decides how much time to allot to each person. Amendments must be germane to the subject of a bill; no riders are allowed. The bill is reported back to the House (to itself) and is voted on. A quorum call is a vote to make sure that there are enough members present (218) to have a final vote. If there is not a quorum, the House will adjourn or will send the Sergeant at Arms out to round up missing members.
Debate is unlimited unless cloture (a motion to end a filibuster that requires a vote by 3/5 of the full Senate) is invoked. Members can speak as long as they desire and amendments need not be germane; riders are often offered. Entire bills can therefore be offered as amendments to other bills. Unless cloture is invoked, Senators can use a filibuster to defeat a measure by "talking it to death."
The bill is voted on within the House or Senate with several potential consequences:
- If not passed by either chamber, the bill is considered “killed.”
- If passed, the bill is sent to the other chamber unless that chamber already has a similar measure under consideration.
- If the House and Senate pass the same bill, it is sent to the President.
- If the House and Senate pass different bills, they are sent to a Conference Committee. Most major legislation goes to a Conference Committee.
Step 4: Conference Committee
Members from each chamber form a Conference Committee and meet to work out the differences between the two bills. The Committee is usually made up of senior members who are appointed by the presiding officers of the Committee that originally dealt with the bill.
If the Conference Committee reaches a compromise, it prepares a written conference report, which is submitted to each chamber. Both the House and the Senate must approve the conference report.
Step 5: The President
The bill is sent to the President for review. A bill becomes law if signed by the President or if not signed within 10 days and Congress is in session. If Congress adjourns before the 10 days and the President has not signed the bill, then it does not become law and is termed a "Pocket Veto."
If the President vetoes the bill, it is sent back to Congress with a note listing his/her reasons. The chamber that originated the legislation can attempt to override the veto by a vote of two-thirds of those present. If the veto of the bill is overridden in both chambers then it becomes law.
Step 6: The Bill Becomes a Law
Once the President signs a bill or both houses override the President’s veto, the bill becomes a law and is assigned an official number (P.L. XXX).