How Bills Become Laws According to the U.S. Legislative Process

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Article I, Section 1 of the United States Constitution grants all legislative or law making powers to the U.S. Congress, which is made up of a Senate and House of Representatives. In addition to its legislative powers, the Senate has the power to advise and consent in matters of treaties negotiated with foreign nations and nominations to non-elected federal offices made by the President of the United States.

Congress also has the legislative power to amend the Constitution, declare war, and approve all matters concerning the federal government’s expenditures and operating budget. Finally, under the Necessary and Proper and Commerce Clauses of Section 8 of the Constitution, Congress exercises powers not explicitly enumerated elsewhere in the Constitution. Under these so-called implied powers, Congress is allowed, “To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.”

Through these constitutionally-granted powers, Congress considers thousands of bills each session. Yet, only a small percentage ever reach the top of the president's desk for final approval or ​veto. Along their way to the White House, bills traverse a maze of committees and subcommittees, debates, and amendments in both chambers of Congress.

The following is a simple explanation of the process required for a bill to become a law.

Step 1: Introduction

Only a member of Congress (House or Senate) can introduce a bill for consideration. The Representative or Senator who introduces a bill becomes its sponsor. Other legislators who support the bill or work on its preparation can ask to be listed as co-sponsors. Important bills usually have several co-sponsors.

Four basic types of legislation, all commonly referred to as bills or measures, are considered by Congress: Bills, Simple Resolutions, Joint Resolutions, and Concurrent Resolutions.

A bill or resolution has officially been introduced when it has been assigned a number (H.R. # for House Bills or S. # for Senate Bills) and printed in the Congressional Record by the Government Printing Office.

Step 2: Committee Consideration

All bills and resolutions are referred to one or more House or Senate committees according to their specific rules.

Step 3: Committee Action

The appropriate committee or committees consider the bill in detail. For example, the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Appropriations Committee will consider a bill's potential impact on the federal budget.

If the committee considering a bill approves it, it moves forward in the legislative process. Committees reject bills by simply not acting on them. Bills that fail to get committee action, as many do, are said to "die in committee."

Step 4: Subcommittee Review

The committee sends some bills to a subcommittee for further study and public hearings. Just about anyone can present testimony at these hearings, including. government officials, industry experts, and members of the public with an interest in the bill. Testimony can be given in person or in writing. Notice of these hearings, as well as instructions for presenting testimony, is officially published in the Federal Register.

Step 5: Mark Up

If the subcommittee decides to report (recommend) a bill back to the full committee for approval, they may make changes and amendments to it first. This process is called mark up. If the subcommittee votes not to report a bill to the full committee, the bill dies there.

Step 6: Committee Action—Reporting a Bill

The full committee reviews the deliberations and recommendations of the subcommittee at this time. It may conduct further review, hold more public hearings, or simply vote on the report from the subcommittee. If the bill is to go forward, the full committee prepares and votes on its final recommendations to the House or Senate. Once a bill has successfully passed this stage, it is said to have been ordered reported or simply reported.

Step 7: Publication of Committee Report

Once a bill has been reported, its report is written and published. This report includes the purpose of the bill, its impact on existing laws, budgetary considerations, and any new taxes or tax increases the bill will require. This report also typically contains transcripts from public hearings on the bill as well as the opinions of the committee for and against the proposed bill.

Step 8: Floor Action—Legislative Calendar

The bill is then placed on the legislative calendar of the House or Senate and scheduled (in chronological order) for floor action or debate before the full membership. The House has several legislative calendars. The Speaker of the House and House Majority Leader decide the order in which reported bills are debated. The Senate, having only 100 members and considering fewer bills, has only one legislative calendar.

Step 9: Debate

Debate for and against the bill proceeds before the full House and Senate according to strict rules of consideration and debate.

Step 10: Voting

Once debate has ended and any amendments to a bill have been approved, the full membership votes for or against the bill. Methods of voting include voice voting and roll-call voting.

Step 11: Bill Referred to Other Chamber

Bills approved by one chamber of Congress (House or Senate) are then sent to the other chamber, which follows the same track of committee, debate, and vote. The other chamber may approve, reject, ignore, or amend the bill.

Step 12: Conference Committee

If the second chamber changes a bill significantly, a conference committee made up of members of both chambers is formed. The conference committee then works to reconcile differences between the Senate and House versions of the bill. If the committee cannot agree, the bill dies. If the committee does agree on a compromise version of the bill, they prepare a report detailing the proposed changes. Both the House and Senate must approve this report or the bill is sent back to the conference committee for further work.

Step 13: Final Action—Enrollment

Once both the House and Senate have approved the bill in identical form, it is enrolled and sent to the President of the United States. The President may sign the bill into law or take no action. If the President takes no action on a bill for ten days while Congress is in session, it automatically becomes law. If the President is opposed to the bill, they can veto it. If they take no action on the bill for ten days after Congress has adjourned their second session, the bill dies. This action is called a pocket veto.

Step 14: Overriding the Veto

Congress can attempt to override a presidential veto of a bill and force it into law, but doing so requires a majority vote by the House and Senate. Under Article I, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution, overriding a presidential veto requires both the House and Senate to approve the override measure by two-thirds,​ a supermajority vote, of the members present. Assuming that all 100 members of the Senate and all 435 members of the House are present for the vote, the override measure would need 67 votes in the Senate and 290 votes in the House.

Source

Sullivan, John V. "How Our Laws Are Made." U.S. Government Printing Office, 2007.