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How a Bill Gets Passed: From Bill to Law

Introduction

Laws govern our everyday lives: they tell us what we’re allowed to do and how our country works. But how are these laws created?

Explanation

The Constitution gives Congress the power to introduce and write bills, which are proposals for laws. Both chambers of Congress go through a comprehensive process to research, debate, amend, and eventually vote on a bill before it can be sent to the president to be signed. Only then can a bill become a law. 

How a Bill Gets Passed

A bill must complete several steps before it can become a law. First, it is introduced by a member of the House of Representatives or the Senate. Then, it is debated and discussed in committees and subcommittees. If those committees approve it, it is reported to the floor of the House or Senate. If a simple majority of the House or Senate votes yes on the bill, it is sent to the other Congressional chamber to go through the whole process again. Once both the House and the Senate agree on the same version of the bill, it is sent to the president to be signed. 

How It Works

All laws start as an idea: a member of the House of Representatives or Senate has an idea for something they think should be a law, and they introduce that idea as a bill. The person who introduces a bill is called its primary sponsor. Congressmembers who want to signal strong support for the bill can cosponsor it. Once the bill has been introduced, it is assigned to the appropriate committees and subcommittees to be researched and discussed.

Committees and subcommittees are small groups of Congressmembers that have a particular legislative focus, such as a focus on agriculture, education, or small business. Subcommittees are more specialized than full committees. In both subcommittees and full committees, the bill is researched, discussed, and debated. The chair of the committee might hold hearings about the bill, during which committee members invite experts, witnesses, and stakeholders in the legislation to testify. 

After hearings are complete, the committee has a mark-up session during which they debate the bill again, amend it, and, finally, vote on it. If they vote against the bill, it is tabled, and nothing more happens. If they approve the bill, however, it is reported either from subcommittee to committee or from committee to the floor of the House or Senate. Committee members write a committee report that details the bill’s purpose and scope and explains why they recommend it for approval.

The bill is then debated by the full House or full Senate. During this time, amendments can be proposed and accepted. Once the bill has been debated, the chamber votes. It needs a simple majority to pass. 

If the bill passes one chamber, it is sent to the other chamber and the process starts again. The second chamber can either approve the bill as they receive it or amend it. Both chambers must vote on and approve the same version of the bill before it can be sent to the president to be signed and turned into a law. Often, a conference committee will be created to resolve differences between the two chambers. A conference committee includes representatives from both the House and the Senate who work together to come to a consensus about the legislation. If they cannot reach an agreement that both chambers will approve, the bill dies. If they can reach an agreement, the conference committee writes a report that details the final compromise. If both chambers approve this conference report, the bill is sent to the president. 

The president can take a number of actions. She can sign the bill, turning it into a law. She can also reject the bill through something called a veto. If the bill is vetoed, the president sends it back to Congress explaining why she rejected it. Congress can amend the bill and send it back or override the veto with a ⅔ vote in both chambers. If the president does not sign or formally reject the bill, and Congress is in session, it automatically becomes a law after ten days. If the president does not do anything and Congress ends its session within ten days, however, the bill is automatically vetoed. This is called a pocket veto. 

It is important to note that not all laws go through this exact process. Congress only writes federal laws, which govern things like immigration, bankruptcy, discrimination, and federal crimes such as tax fraud. There are also state laws and local laws. State laws govern most criminal matters, as well as family matters, real estate, and business contracts, among other things. They are passed by state governments, not the federal government, in a process very similar to the federal one. All states have both an Assembly, which is similar to the House of the Representatives, and a state Senate, which is similar to the federal Senate. For a bill to become state law, it must pass both the Assembly and the Senate and be signed by the governor. Local laws generally govern things like rent, zoning, and local safety. They are usually passed by a city, town, or another form of local government. 

So What?

The ability to introduce and pass laws is one of Congress’s most important powers. Ordinary citizens can influence this process too. Often, ideas for laws originate with citizens who see something they think should be changed. Anyone can write or call their senators or representative and let them know about an issue. If enough people do this, the representative may introduce a bill about the issue, and eventually, it could become a law. 

Think Further

  1. Why is it important that a bill passes both chambers of Congress before it can become a law?
  2. What are some examples of the system of checks and balances in action during the legislative process?
  3. Usually, in a two-year period, under 5% of bills introduced actually become laws. Why do you think this is? At what points during the legislative process can bills die?

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  1. “The Legislative Process.” United States House of Representatives, www.house.gov/the-house-explained/the-legislative-process#:~:text=First%2C%20a%20representative%20sponsors%20a%20bill.&text=If%20released%20by%20the%20committee,released%2C%20debated%20and%20voted%20on.
  2. “How a Bill Becomes a Law.” Zero To Three, Zero To Three, www.zerotothree.org/resources/728-how-a-bill-becomes-a-law.
  3. “How a Bill Becomes a Law.” United States Senator Tom Carper, www.carper.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/how-a-bill-becomes-a-law#5A7B811A-E08D-4C51-891B-15B24841C56B. “How Laws Are Made.” USA.gov, www.usa.gov/how-laws-are-made.