Legislative Process: How a Bill Becomes a Law
For many of us the School House Rock! “I’m just a bill” video and jingle were our first ventures into how a bill becomes a law. I bet some of you can still sing along and may have the tune stuck in your heads right now, as I do. However, it’s not as simple as Mr. Bill sang to us all those years ago. These days it’s a build-your-own-adventure book with all the ways a bill can fail. Let us begin with an introduction.
Introduction – a bill can be introduced in either chamber of Congress (the Senate or the House of Representatives). A member of Congress can introduce bills on behalf of his or herself or they may introduce a bill on behalf of the President. Once a bill is introduced and obtains an individual bill number it is then referred to the appropriate committee.
Bills begin as ideas. They can come from a constituent who sees a problem that needs legislation to be fixed or from an organization who also sees legislation as a solution; they can also come from the legislator themselves.
Committee(s) – after introduction the bill is assigned to the committee that has jurisdiction over the issue addressed in the bill. On the Senate side of Congress there are 17 committees and 72 subcommittees whereas on the House side there are 21 committees and 97 subcommittees. There are also joint committees that comprise members from both chambers. A bill might be assigned to one committee or multiple, depending on the scope of the bill.
If the committee wishes to move the bill forward, the first step is to hold a public hearing where invited members of the public or government agencies will discuss the pros and cons of the bill and they will also answer questions on the merits of the bill. Once testimony on the bill has been completed, the committee can then vote on whether the bill should be amended or be passed.
If a bill is voted and passed out of committee it will move on to the other committees it has been assigned to or it will be put on the legislative calendar for the floor.
Floor Action – A bill that is put on the legislative calendar does not mean that the bill will automatically see floor action. However if a bill is brought forth and sees floor action there will be discussion and potential amendments offered. Eventually there will be a vote by the full chamber (there are a lot of little convoluted steps to get to a vote) and the bill will either pass or fail.
If the bill is passed, then it will be sent to the other chamber of Congress. There it will follow the same process and go through Committees and then hopefully floor action.
Once the same bill language has passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate it will make its way to the President’s desk. BUT if the House of Representatives passes a bill and the Senate changes the language or adds an amendment to that bill passes it then what happens? During times like this members of both Chambers will meet together in what is known as a Conference Committee. This Conference Committee will work through the difference in the two bills and come to an agreement on which version of the bill they want to pass. Once this Committee comes to an agreement then the bill is sent to the President’s desk.
The President can either veto the bill or sign the bill into law. While this process appears to be straightforward the system is intended to fail bills. Congress runs on two year cycles; we are currently in the 113th Congress which will end in December 2014. During this Congress the Senate has introduced 2,776 bills and the House has introduced 5,388 (as of Aug. 1st). In total 8,164 bills have been introduced but only 163 have been signed into law. The system is purposely designed to fail bills, which is both good and bad. As we watch the same bills fail Congress after Congress it does get frustrating but it makes those victories all the sweeter when they happen.