Laws may be initiated in either chamber of Congress, the House of Representatives or the Senate. For this example, we will track a bill introduced in the House of Representatives. For more information, try How Our Laws Are Made (Senate Document 105-14)Text(166k)PDF(327k).
1. When a Representative has an idea for a new law, s/he becomes the sponsor of that bill and introduces it by giving it to the clerk of the House or by placing it in a box, called the hopper. The clerk assigns a legislative number to the bill starting the number anew with each Congress, with H.R. e.g., (H.R. 5 (Introduced in House) - To improve patient access to health care services and provide improved medical care by reducing...) for bills introduced in the House of Representatives and S. e.g., (S. 7 (Introduced in Senate) - Comprehensive and Fair Tax Reform Act) for bills introduced in the Senate. Both of these examples come from the 112th Congress. The Government Printing Office (GPO) then prints the bill and distributes copies to each representative.
2. Next, the bill is assigned to a committee (the House has 22
standing committees, each with jurisdiction over bills in
certain areas) by the Speaker of the House so that it can be
The standing committee (or often a subcommittee) studies the bill and hears testimony from experts and people interested in the bill. The committee then may release the bill with a recommendation to pass it, or revise the bill and release it, or lay it aside so that the House cannot vote on it. Releasing the bill is called reporting it out, while laying it aside is called tabling
3. If the bill is released, it then goes on a calendar (a list of bills awaiting action). Here the House Rules Committee may call for the bill to be voted on quickly, limit the debate, or limit or prohibit amendments. Undisputed bills may be passed by unanimous consent, or by a two-thirds vote if members agree to suspend the rules.
4. The bill now goes to the floor of the House for consideration and begins with a complete reading of the bill (sometimes this is the only complete reading). A third reading (title only) occurs after any amendments have been added. If the bill passes by simple majority (218 of 435), the bill moves to the Senate.
5. In order to be introduced in the Senate, a senator must be recognized as the presiding officer and announce the introduction of the bill. Sometimes, when a bill has passed in one house, it becomes known as an act; however, this term usually means a bill that has been passed by both houses and becomes law.
6. Just as in the House, the bill then is assigned to a committee. It is assigned to one of the Senate's 16 standing committees by the presiding officer. The Senate committee studies and either releases or tables the bill just like the House standing committee.
7. Once released, the bill goes to the Senate floor for consideration. Bills are voted on in the Senate based on the order they come from the committee; however, an urgent bill may be pushed ahead by leaders of the majority party. When the Senate considers the bill, they can vote on it indefinitely. When there is no more debate, the bill is voted on. A simple majority (51 of 100) passes the bill.
8. The bill now moves onto a conference committee, which is made up of members from each House. The committee works out any differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The revised bill is sent back to both houses for their final approval. Once approved, the bill is printed by the U.S. Government Printing Office in a process called enrolling. The clerk from the introducing house certifies the final version.
9. The enrolled bill is now signed by the Speaker of the House and then the vice president. Finally, it is sent for presidential consideration. The president has ten days to sign or veto the enrolled bill. If the president vetoes the bill, it can still become a law if two-thirds of the Senate and two-thirds of the House then vote in favor of the bill. E.g., (Public Law 111-309 - Medicare and Medicaid Extenders Act of 2010)
For resources to search legislation you might try the Subject Guide Law.
Act: Legislation that has passed both Houses of Congress and approved by the President, or passed over his veto, thus becoming law. Also used technically for a bill that has been passed by one House of Congress.
Amendment: A proposal by a Member (in committee or floor session of the respective Chamber) to alter the language or provisions of a bill or act. It is voted on in the same manner as a bill. The Constitution of the United States, as provided in Article 5, may be amended when two thirds of each house of Congress approves a proposed amendment and three fourths of the states thereafter ratify it.
Bill: introduced legislation. Most legislative proposals are in the form of bills and are designated as H.R. (House of Representatives) or S. (Senate), depending on the House in which they originate, and are numbered consecutively in the order in which they are introduced during each Congress. Public bills deal with general questions and become Public Laws, or Acts, if approved by Congress and signed by the President. Private bills deal with individual matters such as claims against the Federal Government, immigration and naturalization cases, land titles, et cetera, and become private laws if approved and signed.
Calendar: A list of bills, resolutions, or other matters to be considered before committees or on the floor of either House of Congress.
Enrolled Bill: A copy of a bill passed by both houses of Congress, signed by their presiding officers, and sent to the President for signature.
Hearing: A meeting or session of a committee of Congress, usually open to the public, to obtain information and opinions on proposed legislation, conduct an investigation, or oversee a program.
Pocket Veto: A veto of a bill brought about by an indirect rejection by the president. The president is granted ten days, Sundays excepted, to review a piece of legislation passed by Congress. Should he fail to sign a piece of legislation and Congress has adjourned within those ten days, the bill is automatically killed. The process of indirect rejection is known as a pocket veto.
Public Law: A bill or joint resolution (other than for amendments to the Constitution) passed by both Houses of Congress and approved by the President. Bills and joint resolutions vetoed by the President, but overridden by the Congress also become public law.
Private Law: Private bills today typically grant citizenship to individuals who are otherwise ineligible for normal visa processing; alleviation of tax liability; armed services decorations; and other similar issues. Private laws are published individually as slip laws and are included in the United States Statues at Large. E.g., (Private Law 109-1 - Betty Dick Residence Protection Act)
Referendum: The submission of a law, proposed or already in effect, to a direct vote of the people.
Report: The printed record of a committee’s actions, including its votes, recommendations, and views on a bill or question of public policy or its findings and conclusions based on oversight inquiry, investigation, or other study.
Tabling Motion: A motion to stop action on a pending proposal and to lay it aside indefinitely. When the Senate or House agrees to a tabling motion, the measure which has been tabled is effectively defeated.
Veto: The constitutional procedure by which the President refuses to approve a bill or joint resolution and thus prevents its enactment into law. A regular veto occurs when the President returns the legislation to the originating House without approval. It can be overridden only by a two-thirds vote in each House. A pocket veto occurs after Congress has adjourned and is unable to override the President’s action.
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