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Last Updated: Jun 23, 2015 URL: http://guide.library.law.emory.edu/legislative_history Print Guide RSS Updates

The Legislative Process Print Page
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How a Bill Becomes a Law

For a quick and fun overview, see:
Schoolhouse Rock, I’m Just a Bill, (1974).

For a more detailed account, see:
Congress.gov, The Legislative Process, (2014).

For an official narrative of the process, see:
FDSys.gov, How Our Laws Are Made, H. Doc. 110-49 (2007).

For a 16 page report prepared for members of Congress, see:
Congressional Research Service, Legislative History Research: A Guide to Resources for Congressional Staff, CRS Rpt. 113-68; R41865, August 16, 2013.

For an explanation of which legislative history documents are created thorughout the process, see the "How A Bill Becomes a Law - Basic Steps" box below. 

And finally, for a colorful flowchart, see this.

 Diagram courtsey of Cybertelecom via Creative Commons with attribution.

 

How a Bill Becomes a Law - Basic Steps

In the House of Representatives:

  1. The Bill is introduced in the House by depositing it in the “Hopper” (a wooden box on the House Floor) and given the appropriate bill number (H.R. 123).

  2. The Speaker of the House then refers the bill to all committees that have jurisdiction over the provisions in the bill.  (If multiple committees are involved, each committee may only work on the portion of the bill that falls under their jurisdiction.)

  3. Once “in Committee,” the committee’s chairman determines which bills will move forward in the process and which will be left to “die in committee.”

  4. If a bill is considered by the committee, it may choose to hold a hearing to provide committee members and members of the public an opportunity to hear about the strengths and weaknesses of the bill.  (Bills may also be referred to subcommittees during this stage of the processes for further investigation and consideration.)

  5. If the committee wishes to advance the bill, it will produce a “Markup” to be submitted (“reported”) to the full chamber for discussion. 

  6. Once the Markup has been reported to the full chamber, it is then placed on the House’s calendar or list of bills for consideration by the full chamber.  The House Majority Leader determines which bills the House will consider and in what order.

  7. Once on the House Floor, the bill is debated and amendments can be made where procedurally appropriate.  Debates are limited in duration and amendments must be germane to the issues contained in the bill.  

  8. Once the amendment process is complete, the House then votes on whether or not to approve the bill (Engrossed) and send it to the Senate for consideration.

  9. Once the Engrossed Bill is sent to the Senate, they can either vote to approve the bill exactly as it is, in which case it is sent to the President for his/her signature; or they can vote to amend the bill and return it to the House for consideration.  This process is often called “amendment exchange” where versions of the bill are passed back and forth between chambers until an identical bill is agreed upon by both chambers.

  10. Alternatively, amendments may be sent to a temporary Conference Committee composed of members of both chambers with specific instructions to negotiate a proposal that can be agreed upon by both chambers for that particular bill (Conference Report).

  11. Once both chambers have agreed to the bill, it is Enrolled and presented to the President for consideration.  The President has 10 days to either sign or veto the bill.  Upon signing by the president, or expiration of the 10 days, the enrolled bill becomes a law.  If the President vetoes the bill, it is returned to the congressional chamber which initially proposed the bill where it can be put to vote again in an attempt to override the veto.  If two thirds of the chamber agrees to override the veto, it is then sent to the other chamber for the same “override” vote.

  12. Once ultimately Enacted via Presidential signature or successful veto override vote, the bill officially becomes a law and is submitted to the Office of the Federal Register for publication.  Enacted federal laws are published in three ways:  First, as stand-alone pamphlet known as a Slip Law (“Public Law” or “PL”), second, as a Session Law published in the Statutes at Large (“Stat”) generated by each Congress, and finally, incorporated into the United States Code (“U.S.C.”) as appropriate.

In the Senate:

  1. The Bill is introduced in the Senate by submitting the bill to the Clerk on the Senate Floor and is given the appropriate bill number (S. 456)

  2. The Clerk refers the bill to the committee with jurisdiction over the issues that predominate in the bill.  (In some cases, the bill may pass directly to the Senate Calendar of Business without stopping in committee first.)

  3. Once “in Committee,” the committee’s chairman determines which bills will move forward in the process and which will be left to “die in committee.”

  4. If a bill is considered by the committee, it may choose to hold a hearing to provide committee members and members of the public an opportunity to hear about the strengths and weaknesses of the bill.  (Bills may also be referred to subcommittees during this stage of the processes for further investigation and consideration.)

  5. If the committee wishes to advance the bill, it will produce a “Markup” to be submitted (“reported”) to the full chamber for discussion. 

  6. Once the Markup has been reported to the Senate floor, is it ready to be considered by the full Senate.  However, in the Senate, bills are debated only after a Senator (usually the Majority Leader) makes a “Motion to Proceed” with the bill.  If the motion carries, the Senate can immediately begin consideration of the bill.

  7. Once the Senate has agreed to consider a bill, the bill is debated and amendments can be made where procedurally appropriate.  However, the Senate does not limit the time for debates (filibuster) and does not have the same “germaneness” requirement that is present in the House.  (The Senate rules do provide a tool for limitation on debate where a supermajority files a cloture motion which limits debate to 30 hours with a mandatory vote within two days of the motion.

  8. Once the debate and amendment process is complete, the Senate then votes (simply majority) on whether or not to approve the Bill (Engrossed) and send it to the House for consideration.

  9. Once the Engrossed Bill is sent to the House, they can either vote to approve the bill exactly as it is, in which case it is sent to the President for his/her signature; or they can vote to amend the bill and return it to the Senate for consideration.  This process is often called “amendment exchange” where versions of the bill are passed back and forth between houses until an identical bill is agreed upon by both houses.

  10. Alternatively, amendments may be sent to a temporary Conference Committee composed of members of both chambers with specific instructions to negotiate a proposal that can be agreed upon by both chambers for that particular bill (Conference Report).

  11. Once both chambers have agreed to the bill, it is Enrolled and presented to the President for consideration.  The President has 10 days to either sign or veto the bill.  Upon signing by the president, or expiration of the 10 days, the enrolled bill becomes a law.  If the President vetoes the bill, it is returned to the congressional chamber which initially proposed the bill where it can be put to vote again in an attempt to override the veto.  If two thirds of the chamber agrees to override the veto, it is then sent to the other chamber for the same “override” vote.

  12. Once ultimately Enacted via Presidential signature or successful veto override vote, the bill officially becomes a law and is submitted to the Office of the Federal Register for publication.  Enacted federal laws are published in three ways:  First, as stand-alone pamphlet known as a Slip Law (“Public Law” or “PL”), second, as a Session Law published in the Statutes at Large (“Stat”), and finally, incorporated into the United States Code (U.S.C.) as appropriate.

 

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