Government 101 - Legislative Process

U.S. Congress

Many people complain that the legislative process is too slow. While this may seem true, it should be noted that the framers of our constitution deliberately devised a system of checks and balances to ensure a thorough and deliberative process.

Our system provides a process through which speed is determined by national consensus and a strong resolve to act. When these factors come together, the Congress moves swiftly. However, it is infrequent that an issue gives rise to a national consensus. We are a nation of unique individuals and our individual rights, combined with respect for minority views, are the basis upon which our legislative process was built.

This section reviews the standard legislative process, but it also identifies opportunities to take action. These opportunities are important for you to understand so you will know what type of action is needed and when.

How a Bill becomes a law

The legislative process begins with an idea and these ideas come from the people. Whether a particular idea arises from constituents, representatives of industry, or other interest groups, they are important resources for legislators. These ideas are the basis of our laws.

Anyone may draft a bill, but only members of Congress can introduce bills, joint resolutions, concurrent resolutions, and simple resolutions. By doing so, they become the sponsors of the bill. The official legislative process begins when a bill or resolution is numbered, referred to a committee, and printed by the Government Printing Office. At the beginning of the bill, “H.R.” signifies a House bill, and “S.” a Senate bill.

Point of Influence: Before the bill is introduced, advocates have the greatest ability to be proactive on the issue, as this is when you present the problem and the solution to the elected official. Some legislators aren’t interested in bills that haven’t been introduced, while others are willing to introduce the bill, co-sponsor, or champion the cause.

Step 1: Referral to Committee: With few exceptions, bills are referred to standing committees in the House or Senate according to carefully delineated rules of procedure.

Step 2: Committee Action: When a bill reaches a committee, it is placed on the committee’s calendar. A bill can be referred to a subcommittee or considered by the whole committee. At this point, a bill is examined carefully and its chances for passage are determined. If the committee does not act on a bill, it goes no further in the process.

Step 3: Subcommittee Review: Frequently, bills are referred to a subcommittee for study and hearings. Hearings provide the opportunity to include the views of the executive branch, experts, other public officials, supporters and opponents of the legislation. At this point, testimony may be given in person or submitted as a written statement.

Point of Influence: During the committee process, members of the committee are able to offer amendments. This is another access point to the legislative process, to proactively influence a bill. It also provides an opportunity to react to a section of a bill and seek ways to correct the language before the bill moves forward.

Step 4: Mark Up: When the hearings are complete, the subcommittee may meet to “mark-up” the bill to make changes and vote on amendments, prior to recommending the bill to the full committee. If the subcommittee votes against reporting legislation to the full committee, the bill dies.

Step 5: Committee Action to Report a Bill: After receiving a subcommittee’s report on a bill, the full committee may conduct further study and hearings, or the committee may vote on the subcommittee’s recommendations and amendments, if they were proposed. If these procedures occur, the full committee will vote on whether to recommend the legislation to the full chamber. This procedure is called “ordering a bill reported.”

Step 6: Publication of a Written Report: After a committee votes to have a bill reported, the committee chairman instructs staff to prepare a written report on the bill. This report describes the intent and scope of the legislation, impact on existing laws and programs, position of the executive branch, and views of dissenting members.

Step 7: Scheduling Floor Action: Upon being reported back to the chamber where it originated, the bill is placed in chronological order on the calendar. In the House, there are several different legislative calendars, controlled by the Speaker and Majority Leader who determine if, when, and in what order various bills are scheduled. In the Senate, there is only one legislative calendar.

Point of Influence: Once a bill goes to the full chamber for floor action, debate, and voting, your grassroots efforts are primarily reactive for or against the bill.

Step 8: Debate: When a bill reaches the floor of the House or Senate, there are rules or procedures governing the debate. These rules determine the conditions and amount of time allocated for general discussion.

Step 9: Voting: After debate and approval of any amendments, the bill is passed or defeated by a quorum of members who vote.

Step 10:Referral to Other Chamber: When the House or Senate passes a bill, it is sent to the other chamber, where it usually follows the same route through committee and floor action. This chamber may approve the bill as received, reject it, ignore it, or change it.

Point of Influence: The bill moving to the other chamber is another influence point. However, proactive grassroots efforts should have progress in both chambers at the same time.

Step 11: Conference Committee: If only minor changes are made to a bill by the other chamber, it is common for the legislation to go back to the first chamber to approve those changes. However, when the actions of the other chamber significantly alter the bill, a conference committee is formed to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions. Conferences are typically made up of the members of both chambers who had an active role in creating the legislation. In the House, the Speaker appoints conferees. In the Senate, the Presiding Officer appoints them. If the conferees are unable to reach agreement, the legislation dies. If agreement is reached, a conference report is prepared describing the committee members’ recommendations for changes. Both the House and the Senate must approve the conference report. Conference reports may not be amended.

Point of Influence: Often the preferred language of a bill may be in only the House version or the Senate version of a bill. There may be instances that grassroots actions will require outreach to conference committee members to support one version or another.

Step 12: Final Actions: After both the House and Senate have approved a bill in identical form, it is sent to the President. If the President approves the legislation, he may sign it into law. If the President does not take action within ten days of passage while Congress is in session, the bill automatically becomes law. If the President opposes the bill, he may veto it; or, if he takes no action after the Congress has adjourned its second session, it is a “pocket veto” and the legislation dies.

Step 13: Overriding a Veto: If the President vetoes a bill, Congress may attempt to “override the veto.” This requires both chambers to achieve a two-thirds roll call vote of the members who are present in sufficient numbers for a quorum.

State Legislators

State legislatures are responsible for establishing state law, and the process closely resembles the one utilized by the U.S. Congress. The state house (or assembly) and the state senate pass legislation, which is then sent to the governor for approval. State legislatures have committees and hold hearings, while constituent groups provide input regarding the impact of the legislation and/or how it should be modified.

There are varying factors that impact a state legislator including:

  • Total number of the members
  • Part-time vs. full time
  • Number of days in session
  • Legislative staff (full-time, part-time, shared, none)
  • Rules of the legislature (i.e. some states require a committee hearing for every bill introduced)

In addition to the factors above, nearly every state is required to have a balanced budget. Thus, the cost of all legislative proposals have an added importance to the debate (Vermont is the only state that is not legally required to have a balanced budget). According to the National Council of State Legislatures, there is no “off the shelf” formula for creating a state legislature.

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