Bills in the US Congress

One of the Four Types of Legislation

Full view of US Capitol Building in Washington, DC
U.S. Capitol Building In Washington, D.C. Stefan Zaklin / Getty Images

The bill is the most commonly used form of legislation considered by the US Congress. Bills may originate in either the House of Representatives or the Senate with one notable exception provided for in the Constitution. Article I, Section 7, of the Constitution provides that all bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives but that the Senate may propose or concur with amendments.

By tradition, general appropriation bills also originate in the House of Representatives.

Purposes of Bills

Most bills considered by Congress fall under two general categories: Budget and spending, and enabling legislation.

Budget and Spending Legislation

Every fiscal year, as part of the federal budget process, the House of Representatives is required to create several “appropriations” or spending bills authorizing the expenditure of funds for the daily operations and special programs of all federal agencies. Federal grant programs are typically created and funded in the appropriations bills. In addition, the House may consider “emergency spending bills,” which authorize the expenditure of funds for purposes not provided for in annual appropriations bills.

While all budget- and spending-related bills must originate in the House of Representatives, they must also be approved by the Senate and signed by the president as required by the legislative process.

Enabling Legislation

By far the most prominent and often controversial bills considered by Congress, “enabling legislation” empower appropriate federal agencies to create and enact federal regulations intended to implement and enforce the general law created by the bill.

For example, the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – empowered the Department of Health and Human Services, and several of its sub-agencies to create what are now hundreds of federal regulations to enforce the intent of the controversial national health care law.

While enabling bills create the overall values of the law, such as civil rights, clean air, safer cars, or affordable health care, it is the massive and rapidly-growing collection of federal regulations that actually define and enforce those values.

Public and Private Bills

There are two types of bills--public and private. A public bill is one that affects the public generally. A bill that affects a specified individual or a private entity rather than the population at large is called a private bill. A typical private bill is used for relief in matters such as immigration and naturalization and claims against the United States.

A bill originating in the House of Representatives is designated by the letters "H.R." followed by a number that it retains throughout all its parliamentary stages. The letters signify "House of Representatives" and not, as is sometimes incorrectly assumed, "House resolution". A Senate bill is designated by the letter "S." followed by its number. The term "companion bill" is used to describe a bill introduced in one chamber of Congress that is similar or identical to a bill introduced in the other chamber of Congress.

One More Hurdle: The President's Desk

A bill that has been agreed to in identical form by both the House and Senate becomes the law of the land only after:

  • The President of the United States signs it; or
  • The president fails to return it, with objections, to the chamber of Congress in which it originated, within 10 days (Sundays excepted) while Congress is in session; or
  • The president's veto is overridden by a 2/3 vote in each chamber of Congress.

A bill does not become law without the president's signature if Congress, by their final adjournment, prevents its return with objections. This is known as a "pocket veto".