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. Other examples of statutory enabling legislation include the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act of 2010.

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 define and enforce those values.

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".

Joint Resolutions

As with regular bills, joint resolutions are legislative proposals that require the approval of both houses of Congress and the signature of the President of the United States. If approved, joint resolutions have the force of law. Thus, there is no real difference between a bill and a joint resolution. Joint resolutions are generally used for special limited matters, such as declaring war, terminating national emergency declarations, or amending the U.S. Constitution. When used to propose amendments to the Constitution, joint resolutions do not require the president's signature and become a part of the Constitution when three-quarters of the states have ratified them.

Concurrent Resolutions

Concurrent resolutions are legislative proposals that require the approval of both houses but do not require the signature of the president and do not have the force of law. Concurrent resolutions generally are used to make or amend procedural rules that apply to both houses. They are also used to express the sentiments of both houses. For example, a concurrent resolution is used to set the dates and times of Congress' recesses and adjournments. They are also used to provide for a joint session of Congress, normally to hear a message from the president, such as the State of the Union address, correcting a bill that has already passed both Houses, launching the annual federal budget process, and congratulating another country on the anniversary of its independence.

Simple Resolutions

A simple resolution is a legislative proposal that addresses matters entirely within the prerogative of one house or the other. It requires neither the approval of the other house nor the signature of the President, and it does not have the force of law. Most simple resolutions concern the procedural rules of one house only. They are also used to express the sentiments of a single house. For example, a simple resolution may offer condolences to the family of a deceased member of Congress or foreign head of state, or it may give "advice" on foreign policy or other executive branch matters.

‘Sense of’ Resolutions

When one or both houses of Congress want to formally express opinions about often controversial issues of current national interest, they do so by passing simple or concurrent resolutions known as “sense of the House,” “sense of the Senate,” or “sense of the Congress” resolutions. The opinions expressed in “sense of” resolutions are often made a part of regular bills or amendments.

While the sense of the House or Senate resolutions requires the approval of only one chamber, sense of Congress resolutions must be approved by both the House or Senate through the passage of a joint resolution. Since joint resolutions require the approval of the President of the United States—whose actions are often the target—they are less often used for expressing congressional opinions. Even when a “sense of” resolution is made part of a bill that becomes law, it has no formal effect on public policy and carries no force of law.

During recent Congresses, many “sense of” resolutions have concerned foreign policy matters. For example, in February 2007, the House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution formally expressing its disapproval of President George W. Bush's troop buildup in Iraq. However, they have also been applied to a wide range of domestic policy issues and to call on the federal agencies or officials to take, or not take, a specified action.

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Longley, Robert. "Bills in the US Congress." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2022, thoughtco.com/bills-in-the-us-congress-3322272. Longley, Robert. (2022, September 1). Bills in the US Congress. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/bills-in-the-us-congress-3322272 Longley, Robert. "Bills in the US Congress." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/bills-in-the-us-congress-3322272 (accessed December 2, 2022).