Govt. 101 – Legislative Process of a Bill

From its introduction to passage, to best prepare for advocacy and mobilizing, it is critical to understand the legislative process of a bill in Congress. 

Legislative First Steps: Conception and Introduction

A bill first starts off as an idea. 

Any member of Congress can introduce a bill and become its sponsor. The primary goal of introducing a bill is to spread awareness of a given cause or issue in which congressional leaders seek to alleviate or remedy. 

Representatives and their staff typically consult with nonpartisan entities, policy developers and researchers within the Office of Legislative Counsel when writing the legislation. After a bill is written, it is given a number based on when it is introduced in the two-year congressional cycle. 

The bill is then referred to a committee or to multiple committees depending on its context. The bill can also first be referred to a subcommittee within a committee as well.

Committee Action: Hearing and Markup

After a bill is referred to committee, the Chair determines whether a hearing will occur on behalf of the bill. This is an opportunity for the sponsor to lay out their case for the bill by identifying the problem that needs to be fixed and stating relevant facts surrounding the bill’s purpose. 

Markup is a process by which the proposed bill is amended as necessary by members of the committee. If the committee determines a favorable outcome or adopts the bill, it is voted out of committee to be fully introduced on the floor of the House or Senate. If the committee does not favor the proposed amendments, then it is rejected and the bill dies. However, a bill can be reintroduced at a later date, and the process will start over.

Committee Report

After the bill is voted on in committee, the Chair then writes a report detailing what the bill seeks to change or accomplish, its legislative history thus far, its impact on existing laws and the positions that representatives from the majority party have taken on the bill. The minority party may choose to file dissenting views and reports on the bill as well.

Floor Debate

After a bill clears its respective committee, the Speaker of the House and/or the Senate majority leader come together to determine when and if the bill will appear before the House and Senate for further amending, debate, discussion and final passage. Amending the bill at this stage differs between the House and Senate. A representative from the House may only amend the bill if they receive support from the Rules Committee first, which is the committee that determines the formal rules for presenting bills to the House of Representatives. However, a senator may introduce an amendment independently.

If a senator does not support the bill, they may refuse to discuss and/or debate the legislation in an effort to halt conversation and hinder the passage of the bill. This is also known as a filibuster, which is unique only to the Senate.

Voting and Referral

In each chamber, a bill is passed by a majority vote or floor vote. This occurs after the bill is thoroughly debated in both chambers. The floor vote comprises all members of the House and the Senate who then vote on whether the bill passes as is or requires amendment.

The Senate and House can also introduce a voice vote if one-fifth of a quorum (a smaller representative body of the House or Senate) requests it. A voice vote is a roll-call vote, where senators or representatives each vote “yea” or “nay” on the bill when they are called. Most of the time, only a simple majority is required to advance the legislation.

If a bill is introduced and passed in the House, for example, it would then move to the Senate for additional amendments and debate and may also go through Senate committees. The same rules apply if the bill is introduced and passed in the Senate first, where it would move to the House to undergo the same process. The second chamber may then decide to approve the bill or reject it.

If the resulting changes to the bill are minor in the other chamber that the bill goes to, then the bill goes back to the originating chamber for a final concurring vote. However, if the House and Senate versions of the bill differ greatly, a conference committee is called to incorporate both chambers’ changes to the bill.

Executive Action

If the changes to the bill are deemed acceptable and both House and Senate bills are voted in favor of passage, the bill is sent to the President to be signed into law. 

The President can sign the bill into law or reject the bill, also known as a veto.

The President has 10 days to take action on the bill. If the 10 days expire before the President takes action, the bill automatically becomes law if Congress is in session.

The President may choose to initiate a “pocket veto” on the bill as well, whereby no action is taken on the bill within the 10 days and during a period where Congress is adjourned. In this case, the legislation would die because Congress is not in session. The bill cannot be given back to Congress for further action.

Overriding a Veto

If the President vetoes a bill, Congress can attempt to override the veto. To override a veto, Congress needs a 2/3 vote in favor of the bill. If this threshold is met, the bill becomes law without the President’s signature.