The Federal Legislative Process:

How A
Bill Becomes Law

INTRODUCTION: Although anyone may draft a bill, only Members of Congress (Representatives or Senators) can introduce legislation, thus becoming he bill sponsor. Senators and Representatives introduce bills in their respective chambers in similar ways. A House member drops his legislation in a box on the clerk’s desk affectionately known as the “hopper.” Senators may propose bills on the Senate floor or send them to the Senate clerk. More than one member may sponsor a single piece of legislation, but no measure may be introduced in either chamber when that chamber is in recess (i.e. weekends, holidays, etc.). The bill is then given a number by the clerk, printed and referred to committee. House bills start with “H.R.,” Senate bills with S.

COMMITTEE REFERRAL: Bills are referred to standing committees in the House or Senate based on clearly defined areas of jurisdiction. A bill may be referred to more than one committee but, with the exception of a few turf battles, one committee usually has priority over another. The committee chairman determines the calendar or schedule for all matters coming before his panel. It is up to the chairman to decide if his committee is going to act on a measure and how fast it will act. If he has no interest in a bill or opposes a bill, he can choose to ignore it or encourage his colleagues on the committee to vote it down. The chairman may also refer a bill to subcommittee for further review.

SUBCOMMITTEE REVIEW: Subcommittees function just as full committees do but on a smaller scale. They have fewer members and a narrower focus. Subcommittees may or may not decide to hold a hearing on any measure which is referred to them, again at the chairman’s discretion. Experts and interested parties testify at the hearings or submit written testimony.

Committee members make statements and ask questions of the witnesses. In short, hearings are the best opportunity for differing viewpoints to be put on record. In Washington, most of these hearings are open to the public and the subcommittees or full committees publish “hearing reports” which contain the full transcript. Hearing reports are available from clerks of the committee but often take such an unbelievably long time to be printed that they become obsolete before they even exist.

MARK UP: After holding any necessary hearings, the subcommittee meets to formally consider the bill, amend it as necessary, and vote on it. This process is referred to as a “mark up.” The bill may be voted down (killing it) or may never be placed on the agenda for consideration (also killing it). if a vote is taken and it is a favorable one, the bill is reported back to committee.

After receiving the subcommittee’s report on a bill, the committee reviews it further, holds any necessary hearings and marks up the bill. The full committee then votes on the measure, deciding whether to send it to the floor. Again, if it is voted down, the bill dies. if the vote taken is favorable, the committee issues a report summarizing the legislation, its impact on the budget and existing laws, position of the executive branch (if it has been made known) and any dissenting opinions of committee members.

reported back to the full chamber, the bill is placed chronologically on the legislative calendar. The Senate has only one calendar but the House has several. The Speaker of the House and the majority

leader work together to determine if and when a measure will come to the floor for consideration. Is it a personal or party priority? Is it something the President has requested? Does it involve a military crisis? Is it a budget bill? Has the measure passed the other body? Are there enough votes to ensure passage? All of these factors affect the scheduling of floor debate.

DEBATE: Rules of procedure govern debate in both the House and Senate, but those rules vary dramatically between the two. The Rules Committee of each chamber determines the floor procedure for a given bill. Because of the large number of House members (435), length of debate and allowable amendments are restricted much more so than in the Senate.

VOTING: At the end of debate and after any amendments have been made, a final vote is taken on the bill. In the House, members vote by electronic device (a voting card), but the Senate still uses a “roll call.”

CONSIDERATION IN THE OTHER CHAMBER: if the bill is approved by one house, it is then referred to the other. That chamber then goes through its own committee and subcommittee process, debates the bill, and votes on it.

CONFERENCE COMMITTEE: In order for a bill to be presented to the President, the EXACT same language must be passed by both houses. if a single word or number is changed by one body, the other must pass the same language. If the differences are minimal, the bill is referred back to the original chamber for concurrence. if more significant differences exist, a conference committee consisting of members of each chamber is formed to reconcile them. If no agreement can be reached, the bill dies.

If the issues are resolved, the conference committee issues a report detailing its recommended changes. The conference report must then be approved by both houses.

THE PRESIDENT: Once the legislation (or conference report) has passed both houses, it is sent to the President for his consideration. The President has ten days to either sign the bill or veto it. If Congress is in session and he fails to act within that time frame, the bill automatically becomes law. if Congress has adjourned its second session and the President does not act in ten days, it is called a “pocket veto.”

VETO OVERRIDE: If the President vetoes the bill, the Senate and the House decide whether to attempt an override of the veto, which requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers.

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