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The Legislative Process: How a Bill Becomes a Law

 "All Legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives."  This brief sentence in the Constitution vested Congress with the power to create laws for the country, but it did not provide a specific procedure for enacting legislation. The rules by which legislation may be introduced, debated, and voted on are outlined in the respective procedural rules of the Senate and the House of Representatives.  

The process begins when a Representative or Senator introduces a bill, which is actually a very simple process.  In the House, a bill is dropped into the “hopper”—a small wooden box located on the House floor—after which the bill is assigned a number, entered into the Journal, and printed in the Congressional Record.  The process in the Senate can be a little more formal, where it is more common for members to introduce a piece of legislation on the floor rather than merely turning it in to the clerk’s desk.

Once a bill has been introduced, it is referred to the committee that has jurisdiction over the general issue(s) covered by the bill, such as small business, commerce, education, the environment, and so on. There are approximately 19 standing committees in the House and 16 standing committees in the Senate.  At this stage, committees will hold public hearings, debate the issue(s), and conduct a mark-up session, during which members of the committee will literally go through the text of the proposed legislation and mark it up, offering amendments or deleting text from the bill.  Following mark-up, if a majority of the committee votes to send the bill to the floor, it is then put on the calendar and rules for debate are written.  

In the House the bill is referred to the Rules Committee, which determines how long the bill will be debated, how many amendments can be offered, and who can offer them.  The entire House then votes on the rules of debate.  If the rules are agreed upon, then the bill comes to the floor for debate.  If the House cannot come to agreement on the proposed rules, the bill is returned to the Rules Committee for reconsideration, and the process repeats until a set of rules is passed and debate can begin.

The Senate’s procedure is a little different, because the Senate has a standing rule—the rule of unlimited debate—which guarantees every Senator the opportunity to express his or her opinion about a bill.  In order to keep this rule from delaying the process unnecessarily, the leadership in the Senate will often attempt to obtain a Unanimous Consent Agreement, which will limit debate to the amount of time specified, as well as limit the number of amendments that can be proposed.

The bill must be passed by both the House and the Senate, and often the versions of the bill passed by each chamber are different.  When this is the case, the legislation is referred to a conference committee that will attempt to reconcile the two bills into a single version that both chambers will approve.  Once the conference committee has issued its report, both chambers will vote on the final version of the bill, and, if it is passed by both the House and Senate, it is then sent to the President, who can either sign it or veto it.

The process of creating legislation is complex, and there are many obstacles that a bill must overcome in order to be enacted into law.  Only a small portion of the bills introduced will make it out of committee and an even smaller number will be signed into law.  Typically, several thousand pieces of legislation are introduced over the course of a two-year congressional session, and of those only a few hundred are ultimately signed into law.

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