How a bill becomes a law

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Series: How a bill becomes a law in the U.S. Congress
Main page:
  • How a bill becomes a law
Subpages:
  1. The Congress
  2. Sources of legislation
  3. Forms of congressional action
  4. Introduction and referral to committee
  5. Consideration by committee
  6. Reported bills
  7. Legislative oversight by standing committees
  8. Calendars
  9. Obtaining consideration of measures
  10. Consideration and debate
  11. Congressional budget process
  12. Engrossment
  13. Final action on amended bill
  14. Enrollment
  15. Presidential action
  16. Publication

The general process by which a piece of legislation (a bill) becomes federal law in the United States is dictated by the Constitution. Both the House and Senate must pass an identical bill, which then must be signed by the president in order to have the force of law. In actuality, this seemingly simple process is quite complicated, and comprises many stages. This page serves as the main article in Congresspedia's "How a bill becomes a law" series. Links to subpages providing more in-depth explanations can be found both throughout the page and in the sidebar to the right.

Contents

I. The Congress

The U.S. Congress is a bicameral (two chambers) legislature comprised of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Though the bodies are legislative equals, each has different constitutionally defined functions and responsibilities. The House, for example, is the originator of "all revenue bills," while the Senate has jurisdiction over the confirmation of executive and federal judiciary appointments. [1]

The House of Representatives is currently (as of 2007) composed of 435 members, as was determined by federal law in 1910. Apportionment of House members per state is decided using the U.S. Census (which is conducted every ten years). Members are elected to serve two year terms. Eligibility requirements for serving in the House require an officeholder to be:

  • At least 25 years of age
  • A U.S. citizen for at least seven years
  • A resident of the district one is to serve. [2]

The Senate is currently composed of 100 members (as of 2007), with each state having two senators. Members are elected to serve for six years, with one-third of the Senate facing reelection every two years. Eligibility requirements for serving in the Senate require an officeholder to be:

  • At least 30 years of age
  • A U.S. citizen for at least nine years
  • A resident of the state one is to serve. [3]
Main article: How a bill becomes a law/I. The Congress

II. Sources of legislation

While legislation can only be introduced into Congress by a member, it may be derived from anywhere. Drafting legislation is much more complicated than merely having an idea about the way "things ought to be." It is a meticulous process of adding to or altering the federal statutory code, which itself becomes increasingly complex as laws are passed. [4]

Governmental sources of legislation include not only legislators and their respective staffs, but the entire executive branch (from the president to the bureaucratic agencies). The president is required to report on the "State of the Union" to Congress (each year), as well as to recommend legislation and an annual budget. Though Congress is under no obligation to introduce the legislation, the executive has over the years become an increasingly important source of legislation. [5]

Non-governmental sources of legislation include citizens, corporations, lobbyists, think-tanks, unions, universities and any other person or group who seeks to change the law. [6]

Main article: How a bill becomes a law/II. Sources of legislation

III. Forms of congressional action

There are four types of congressional action, all of which can be called "measures." These are the bill, the joint resolution, the concurrent resolution, and the simple resolution. Each may originate in either the House or Senate. Some are binding and some are non-binding.[7]

The bill and the joint resolution are both binding pieces of legislation and must pass through both chambers as well as be signed by the president. The concurrent resolution is used for non-binding statements and must be passed in both chambers. The simple resolution is a statement passed in a single chamber, and is reserved for issues affecting only that single chamber.[8]

Main article: How a bill becomes a law/III. Forms of congressional action

IV. Introduction and referral to committee

House of Representatives: A measure may be introduced by a voting or non-voting representative (such as the delegate from the District of Columbia). The member who introduces a measure is referred to as the measure's "sponsor." After introduction, it is assigned a number, titled and referred to committee as prescribed by House rules or by the Speaker of the House.[9]

Senate: All measures must be introduced by members (there are no non-voting members of the Senate). At the beginning of each Congress, by tradition, the Senate passes a unanimous resolution stating that new measures may be presented at any time during the day (so long as the floor is open). Once presented, that senator has the opportunity to speak on behalf of the measure before it is sent to committee.[10]

Committees: In both chambers, the bulk of legislative work is done in committees. A committee's agenda is determined by a committee chairman (who is a member of the majority party). After a bill is referred to a committee, it must be placed on the legislative calendar. After this occurs, discussion by both chambers and the concerned public theoretically takes place. The heavy reliance of Congress on committees makes their appointment and operation essential to understanding all congressional action.[11]

Each committee has their own funding and staff. In the House, two-thirds of funding is controlled by the majority party of the committee and one-third is controlled by the minority party. This translates into two-thirds of the staff being selected by the majority party and one-third of the staff being selected by the minority party. There are only two exceptions to majority-controlled funding (the House Ethics and Appropriations Committees). In the Senate, the majority party also controls committee funding, but typically shares a portion with the minority party.[12]

Main article: How a bill becomes a law/IV. Introduction and referral to committee

V. Consideration by committee

In both the House and Senate, standing committees are required to meet at least once per month (except the Senate Committee on Appropriations). Special meetings may be held at the discretion of the chair or can be called by a majority of members. Most committee and subcommittee meetings are a matter of open public record, though exceptions are made for matters of national security, law enforcement, and when stipulated by House or Senate rules[13] [14]

Committees have four basic tasks. These include authorizing subpoenas, "markup" of legislation, internal budgeting and personnel matters. Subpoenas are issued to require expert testimony to appear before hearings. The "markup" session is the action a subcommittee decides to take after public hearings have occurred. It may report a bill 1) with or without amendments and 2) favorably, unfavorably, or without recommendation. After the full committee receives the bill, it may decide to table it, amend it, and/or report it either favorably, adversely, or without recommendation to the chamber.[15]

Main article: How a bill becomes a law/V. Consideration by committee

VI. Reported bills

Once a bill is reported to the floor of either the House or the Senate, copies of the committee reports are made. Committee reports are perhaps the most valuable single element of the legislative history of a law. They are used by the courts, executive departments, and the public as a source of information regarding the purpose and meaning of laws.[16]

There are four basic components to committee reports:

  1. The committee's oversight findings and recommendations
  2. Information on the measure's impact on the federal budget (i.e. Does it increase or decrease revenues or tax expenditures?)
  3. A cost estimate and comparison prepared by the director of the Congressional Budget Office whenever the director has submitted that estimate and comparison to the committee prior to the filing of the report
  4. A statement of general performance goals and objectives, including outcome-related goals and objectives, for which the measure authorizes funding.[17]
Main article: How a bill becomes a law/VI. Reported bills

VII. Legislative oversight by standing committees

Each standing committee is charged with certain oversight authority to ensure that laws, bureaucracies and federally funded programs are operating as intended. Similar to other congressional functions, oversight occurs at the prerogative of the majority party.[18]

Main article: How a bill becomes a law/VII. Legislative oversight by standing committees

VIII. Calendars

The House of Representatives maintains five calendars:

  • The Union Calendar
  • The House Calendar
  • The Private Calendar
  • The Corrections Calendar
  • The Calendar of Motions to Discharge Committees

Any measure, public or private, must be placed on the appropriate calendar. A voting majority determines what makes it onto the calendar and what does not.[19]

The Senate maintains two calendars:

  • The Calendar of Business
  • The Executive Calendar

Senate calendars are less important in determining the consideration of measures than House calendars.[20]

Main article: How a bill becomes a law/VIII. Calendars

IX. Obtaining consideration of measures

The agenda for the House of Representatives relies on the calendar, which may be changed by several parliamentary tactics such as unanimous consent (whereby the entire House agrees to consider a measure). These are essential for Congress to set its debates and legislation to coincide with the most pertinent topics of the day.[21]

Senate rules are more accommodating for their members, as there are three different ways in which a measure may come to consideration. A measure may be considered if:

  • It is scheduled to be brought up on the calendar.
  • After being on the calendar for one legislative day, a majority votes to consider it.
  • A unanimous vote is cast by the Senate.

When the Senate considers a measure by unanimous vote, it may choose to limit the debate, and otherwise alter the rules for consideration.[22]

Main article: How a bill becomes a law/IX. Obtaining consideration of measures

X. Consideration and debate

House of Representatives: Tradition demands that bills be given consideration by the entire membership, usually with adequate opportunity for debate and the proposing of amendments. The caveat to this is called the Committee of the Whole House. This is a 100-member body used to expedite the legislative process by avoiding the normal quorum requirements of 218.[23]

Most bills are open to amendment, so long as the amendments are germane (related to the text of the bill being considered). After introducing an amendment, the member has five minutes on the floor to debate. Five minutes are then given to those in opposition of the amendment. The five-minute rule effectively restricts the House from filibustering a bill. At any time, a majority vote may end debate by calling "the previous question." The House then must vote on any amendments and finally vote on the passage of the bill.[24]

Senate: The chamber is not bound by the five minute rule. Once a senator has the floor, he/she may hold it indefinitely (commonly known as filibustering). The only Senate action that may stop a filibuster is a motion to "invoke cloture", which requires three-fifths of the Senate for passage. Invoking cloture limits the debate to thirty more hours, after which the measure must receive a vote.[25]

Another significant difference between the House and Senate is that amendments to Senate bills are not required to be germane. This means that the Senate may consider/add any provisions to a bill regardless of its original intent.[26]

Voting methods: There are three methods of voting in both the House and Senate: by voice, division or record. In a voice vote, members simply respond to the question by saying "Aye" or "No". The volume of the vote is used by the Speaker to determine its outcome. If there is no clear outcome, a division may be requested. In a division vote, members stand for support. The final and perhaps most telling form of voting is the recorded vote, where each members' vote is "recorded."[27]

Main article: How a bill becomes a law/X. Consideration and debate

XI. Congressional budget process

Budgets are established by way of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. The Budget Act contains provisions for the formulation of expected revenue, as well as expenditure. Congress attempts to implement this budget via concurrent resolution by April 15 (The federal fiscal year begins on October 1).[28]

The process of restructuring federal law and policy via concurrent resolution is called reconciliation, which begins by parsing out the concurrent resolution to the appropriate committees. The committees craft their recommendations into omnibus bills which are then sent to the full chamber for consideration. In the Senate, omnibus bills are among the only bills that may move forward with a simple majority.[29]

Main article: How a bill becomes a law/XI. Congressional budget process

XII. Engrossment

Once a bill has been passed, it is reported to either the Clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate. The corresponding office revises the text of the bill (including any amendments) in a process referred to as engrossment. The bill then officially becomes "An Act", meaning it has passed through one body of Congress.[30]

Main article: How a bill becomes a law/XII. Engrossment

XIII. Final action on amended bill

A bill cannot become a law until it has been approved in identical form by both chambers of Congress. After a bill has passed both chambers, it must be made identical via a conference committee.[31]

The Speaker appoints the House conferees. Usually, these are chosen from the committee that has jurisdiction over the bill in question, and often following the recommendation of that committee chairman. Representation of both major parties is an important attribute of all parliamentary procedures but, in the case of conference committees, it is expected that the views of the chamber of the House on matters in conference be properly represented. The presiding officer of the Senate appoints the conferees, in a manner similar to the House.[32]

The conference committee is sometimes popularly referred to as the "Third Chamber of Congress," but conferee powers are limited. They do not have the authority to amend any portion of a bill that has not been amended in either chamber, and they may not insert material that is not germane.[33]

If a compromise is reached via the conference committee, the corresponding report containing the amendments must be debated and passed in both chambers without change. If they are not passed, a new conference may be called. When the bill has finally been approved by both chambers, all the original papers are transmitted to the enrolling clerk of the body in which the bill originated.[34]

Main article: How a bill becomes a law/XIII. Final action on amended bill

XIV. Enrollment

Once an identical bill has passed in both chambers, the Clerk of the House or Secretary of the Senate (depending on the bills' origin) must ensure that the bill document reflects all of the agreed upon amendments. The bill is then printed, and both the Speaker of the House and either the president of the Senate or the President pro tempore of the Senate must sign the bill. At this point, it is presented to the president.[35]

Main article: How a bill becomes a law/XIV. Enrollment

XV. Presidential action

Once a bill has been presented to the president, he/she has ten days of constitutionally allocated time to decide a course of action. The president may approve the bill, by signing it into law. The president may also veto the bill, which sends it back to Congress where it must receive approval by two-thirds of both chambers to override the veto.[36]

If the president does not sign or veto the bill after ten days, two outcomes may occur. If Congress is in session, the bill is considered approved. If, however, the Congress has adjourned, the bill does not become law. This is known as a "pocket veto." The extent of pocket veto authority has not been definitively decided by the courts.[37]

For a brief period of time (1997 to 1998), the president had the authority to issue a "line item" veto. This allowed the president to veto certain fiscal items in a bill, rather than having to either approve or veto the bill as a whole. Ultimately, this right was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Clinton v. City of New York (1998).[38]

Main article: How a bill becomes a law/XV. Presidential action

XVI. Publication

After a bill becomes law, it is assigned a number. The first law of the 110th Congress, for example, was Public Law 110-1. It is then published and added to the official United States Code.[39]

Main article: How a bill becomes a law/XVI. Publication

Articles and resources

References

  1. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: The Congress" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  2. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: The Congress" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  3. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: The Congress" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  4. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Sources of Legislation" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  5. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Sources of Legislation" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  6. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Sources of Legislation" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  7. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Forms of Congressional Action" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  8. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Forms of Congressional Action" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  9. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Introduction and Referral to Committee" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  10. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Introduction and Referral to Committee" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  11. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Introduction and Referral to Committee" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  12. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Introduction and Referral to Committee" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  13. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Consideration by Committee" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  14. Robert B. Dove, "Enactment of Law: Senate Committee Rules" Library of Congress, February 1997.
  15. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Consideration by Committee" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  16. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Reported Bills " Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  17. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Reported Bills " Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  18. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Legislative Oversight by Standing Committee" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  19. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Calendars in the House of Representatives" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  20. Robert B. Dove, "Enactment of Law: Considering Measures on the Senate Floor" Library of Congress, February 1997.
  21. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Obtaining Consideration of Measures " Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  22. Robert B. Dove, "Enactment of Law: Considering Measures on the Senate Floor" Library of Congress, February 1997.
  23. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Consideration and Debate" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  24. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Consideration and Debate" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  25. Robert B. Dove, "Enactment of Law: Motions, Quorums, and Votes " Library of Congress, February 1997.
  26. Robert B. Dove, "Enactment of Law: Motions, Quorums, and Votes " Library of Congress, February 1997.
  27. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Consideration and Debate" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  28. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Congressional Budget Process" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  29. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Congressional Budget Process" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  30. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Engrossment and Message to the Senate" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  31. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Final Action" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  32. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Final Action" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  33. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Final Action" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  34. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Final Action" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  35. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Enrollment " Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  36. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Presidential Action" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  37. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Presidential Action" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  38. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Presidential Action" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.
  39. Charles W. Johnson, "How our Laws are Made: Publication" Library of Congress, June 20, 2003.

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