So you may be wondering, how does a bill become a law? Unfortunately it’s not as easy as you’d expect, so before we get
into specifics, it’s important to understand the basics. First a bill originates from an idea. Then it’s proposed, and then the bill is introduced in the House of Representatives — or House — for short. Then, the bill is reviewed. Then the bill is debated on the floor, where if it passes, will be sent to the Senate. Then, the Senate proceeds with further review of the bill. Afterwards, the bill is debated over again. If the bill passes the Senate, both the Senate and the House work together to find a common ground between both versions of their bill. Once a new version of the bill has been agreed upon, it is sent back to the President. Now, the President can pass the bill, or veto it — where the bill is sent back to Congress for further review. With that said, a veto can be overridden, but it very seldom is. Did you catch all that? If I counted correctly, there are a total of 10 steps that a bill has to take in order to become a law. So, let’s go over it again, but in a little more detail. Let’s say you wanted to create a bill. A bill that will make the current school day shorter, so kids can spend more time on extra curricular activities, sports, homework, and resting. It’s important to note that a bill can be started by virtually anyone, wether it be a representative or a citizen. However, only members of Congress can formally introduce a bill, and a bill can be introduced at any point in time while the House is in session.
Now, there are four kinds of legislation Congress can receive and debate over. Joint resolutions; where both the House and the Senate need to be in agreement, concurrent resolutions; where a resolution does not require the signature of the chief executive, simple resolutions; where a piece of legislature has only been approved by one house and doesn’t need to be presented to the President, and a standard bill; which would apply to our current scenario.
Before any introduction is made, a bills’ type must be determined. There are two types of bills. There are private bills—where the bill will only affect a specific person or organization—and public bills. Public bills affect the general population. In our case, our bill will be classified as a public bill. After the bill has been developed and text has been written, a member has to officially introduce the bill in Congress. The same member will also become the bills’ sponsor. There can be multiple sponsors for the same bill, which in that case, those individuals would be called co-sponsors.
Bills are formally introduced in the House of Representatives by placing them in a special box known as the hopper. The hopper is located by the Speaker of the House’s platform. If the same bill manages to be sent to the Senate, a bill s introduced by introducing it to the Senate floor. In the House of Representatives, a special individual known as a bill clerk, assigns a bill its own unique number. House bills start will “H.R.”, while resolutions begin with “H. Res.,” “H. Con. Res.,” or H. J. Res,” depending on what type of resolution they are. Senate bills begin with “S.” Our bill will be denoted with an “H.R.,” since it isn’t a resolution.
After the first reading of the bill, it is sent to a committee for revisions. In the House, here are 19 committees. In the Senate, there are 16 committees. Bills are sent to the appropriate committee, since each committee specializes in different areas of public policy; wether it be education, the workforce, or international relations. The bill is then placed on the committee’s calendar. When the date arrives, the committee begins to revise the bill. Committee members then vote on the revisions to decide wether or not to keep the edits made. A bill can go through many revisions, and a committee may even decide to introduce a brand new bill with a new number. It’s worth noting that a committee can stop action, or “table” a bill they find it unnecessary. If a bill isn’t tabled, it will be either sent to a sub committee or sent back to the House floor. A sub committee works exactly the same as regular committee. The only difference is that a sub committee can only send a bill back to the full committee, and not directly to the House floor. Bills are usually only sent to a sub committee when further review is needed.
Once a bill has been released from the committee, a report is ordered containing and explaining all of the revisions made. The reported bill is then placed on one of five House calendars; the Union Calendar, the House Calendar, the Private Calendar, the Corrections Calendar, or the Calendar of Motions to Discharge Committees. But don’t worry about these. In our case, let’s say our bill was marked on the Union Calendar.
After all this, the bill is finally debated on the House floor. After the preliminary debate has ended, the bill is read section by section, where amendments may be suggested. After the amendment debate has subsided, the bill is read a third time. After the third reading, the House is ready to vote on the bill. Members will vote to either pass or deny the bill. (Fun fact, the House uses an electronic voting system, while the Senate cast their votes using non- electronic methods.) After voting has concluded, roll call begins. This is where the votes cast are recorded, and members vote “Yea” for approval, “Nay” for disapproval, and “Present” to acknowledge their presence but choose not to vote. If the majority votes in favor of the bill, it is sent to the Senate for a very similar process of approval. Once the bill has reached the Senate, it will be received by a clerk. This clerk will certify the bill and its’ amendments. Upon certification, the bill will have been “engrossed.” Just like the House, the bill can be sent to a committee for further review, or members may choose to ignore the bill completely and proceed with their own legislation. If the bill indeed wasn’t ignored, it will then proceed to be voted on. All differences must be settled before the bill is sent to the President. Once all differences have indeed been settled, the bill will have become “enrolled;” where a bill has passed with both the House of Representatives and Senate’s approval.
Once the President has received the bill, several actions can be taken. A President can choose to take no action, which in that case, the bill will become law in 10 days— if Congress is in session. The President can also veto a bill, where it is sent back to it’s house of origin for further revision. The President can also pocket veto a bill, in which Congress has adjourned (or paused) and the bill will die. Lastly, the President can sign the bill; which would formally make the bill a law. However, if the bill is in fact vetoed, Congress has the ability to override the President’s veto. This can only be done via a vote on the house floor, where members choose to object the veto or not. If enough members object, the bill becomes law. If not enough members vote to override the decision, the bill is stalled and it does not become a law.
So let’s say your bill made it through the entire process, and was ultimately signed by the President. Upon the signature of the President, your bill will formally become known as an Act. In our case, we’ll call it the American Education Reform Act. There you have it.
Hopefully know you understand a little more about how you, an American citizen, can transform any idea into reality. Granted, it’s not an easy process, in fact it’s rather tedious one, but know you have a little insight as to how a bill becomes a law.