How a Bill Becomes a Law


How a Bill Becomes a Law -- A Brief Look

1. Introduction in Congress

A bill may be written by anyone but it must be introduced by a senator or congressman and by doing so they become the sponsor(s). Bills, joint resolutions, concurrent resolutions, and simple resolutions are the four basic types of legislation. When a bill or resolution is numbered H.R. signifying a House bill or S. a Senate bill, it is referred to a committee and printed by the Government Printing Office, the official legislative process starts.

2. Referral to Committee

According to carefully delineated rules of procedures, bills are usually referred to standing committees in the House or Senate.

3. Committee Action

A bill is placed on the committee's calendar when it reaches a committee. It can be referred to a subcommittee or the committee as a whole considers it. A bill is examined carefully at this point and its possibility for passage are determined. A bill that is not acted on by the committee is the equivalent of killing it. The vast majority of bills never makes it beyond this stage.

4. Subcommittee Review

For study and hearings, bills are often referred to a subcommittee. The opportunity to put on the record the views of the executive branch, experts, other public officials, supporters and opponents are provided by hearings. Testimony can be submitted in writing or in person.

5. Mark Up

The sub-committee may meet to "mark up" the bill when the hearings are completed. This means the bill is examined line by line and alterations and amendments are made prior to recommending to the full committee the bill. The bill dies if a subcommittee votes not to report legislation to the full committee.

6. Committee Action to Report a Bill

The full committee can conduct further hearings and study, or it can vote on the subcommittee's recommendations and any proposed amendments after receiving a subcommittee's report on a bill. On its recommendation to the House or Senate, the full committee then votes. "Ordering a bill reported," is what this procedure is called.

7. Publication of a Written Report

The chairman instructs staff to prepare a report on the bill after a committee votes to have a bill reported. The intent and scope of the legislation, impact and existing laws and programs, position of the executive branch, and view of dissenting members are described in this report.

8. Scheduling Floor Action

A bill is placed in chronological order on the calendar after it is reported back to the chamber where it originated . The Speaker and Majority Leader largely determine if, when, and in what order bills come up because in the House, there are several different legislative calendars. However, there is only one legislative calendar in the Senate.

9. Debate

There are rules or procedures governing the debate when a bill reaches the floor of the House or Senate. The conditions and amount of time allocated for debate are determined by these rules.

10. Voting

The bill is passed or defeated by the members voting after the debate and the approval of any amendments.

11. Referral to Other Chambers

A bill is referred to the other chambers where it usually follows the same route through committee and floor actions when it is passed by the House or the Senate. The bill may be approved as received, reject it, ignore it, or change it by this chamber.

12. Conference Committee Action

It is common for the legislation to go back to the first chamber for concurrence if only minor changes are made to a bill by the other chamber. A conference committee, however, is formed to reconcile the differences when the actions of the other chamber significantly change the bill. The legislation dies if the conferees are unable to reach agreement. A conference report is prepared describing the committee members' recommendations for modification if agreement is reached. The conference report must be approved by both the House and Senate.

13. Final Action

The President receives a bill after it has been approved by the House and Senate in identical form. The legislation is signed and it becomes law if the President approves it. Or no action can be taken for ten days while Congress is in session by the President, and it becomes law automatically. The bill is vetoed if the President opposes the bill, or it is a "pocket veto" and the legislation dies if he takes no action after the Congress has adjourned its second session.

14. Vote Override

Congress may attempt to "override the veto," if the President vetoes a bill. A two-thirds roll call vote of the members who are present in sufficient numbers for a quorum is required for this.

Return to the Legislative Information Center.