The Legislative Process
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United States Congress is the chief legislative or law-making
body in the land. Through the laws it passes, it defines
crimes and punishments, establishes levels of taxation
and spending and creates the programs and policies that
shape American government and politics.
legislative process can be long, tedious, complex and
frustrating. Indeed, it is much more difficult to pass
a bill than it is to kill one. There are numerous times
and places during the legislative process at which a
bill can die. Only a very few survive to become law.
Before the Process Begins
the formal legislative process begins when a bill is
introduced in the House or the Senate, a bill is "born" long
before that. By introducing a piece of legislation, a
member of Congress proposes a solution to a public policy
problem. Before a public policy problem can be addressed
through the legislative process, however, it must first
be recognized as a problem.
a problem is identified, possible solutions for the problem
must be identified and discussed. In the American political
process, there are generally more than enough proposed
solutions to the problems the nation faces. The difficulty
lies in sorting through the proposed solution to find
the one that will work best. When a member of Congress
proposes a bill, he or she is essentially claiming to
have found the best (or at least most practical)
solution to the public policy problem in question.
The Process Begins
a member of Congress introduces a bill in the House or
Senate, the bill must be drafted. Writing legislation
requires precision, attention to detail, an intimate
understanding of existing laws and a clear understanding
of the proposed policy solution. Members of Congress
often rely on staff, experts in the area the proposed
legislation will effect, and Congressional legal staff
to assist them in drafting legislation.
of Congress must successfully compete for congressional
and public attention or the legislation they introduce
is bound to fail. Thousands of bills are introduced each
year and only a handful become law. To build support
and momentum for a bill, members of Congress generally
hold press conferences to announce the introduction of
legislation. They will also secure as many co-sponsors
as possible for their legislation to provide evidence
of broad congressional support for the bill.
Committee Referral & Committee Consideration
a bill has been formally introduced, it is referred to
a congressional committee for further consideration.
There are nineteen "standing" or permanent committees
in the House and seventeen in the Senate. Each of these
committees has a specific area of legislative jurisdiction
and bills are generally referred to committees accordingly.
In many cases, however, bills address topics that fall
under the jurisdiction of more than one committee. In
others, it is unclear which committee has jurisdiction
over a bill. In these cases, party leaders in each house
choose which committee or committees will consider the
legislation. (PHOTO at Right: The House Veterans
Affairs Committee Room).
A favorable committee assignment can mean the difference
between success or failure for a bill. If a bill is assigned
to a committee with a Chair that supports the legislation,
the bill is likely to be scheduled for a timely public hearing,
full committee consideration and a vote. A Chair who does
not support legislation can easily kill a bill by simply
failing to put it anywhere near the top of the committee's
Because committees have crowded agendas and
because of scheduling difficulties, many otherwise "good" bills
die in committee simply because there is not enough time
to deal with them. For this reason, committees are sometimes
referred to as the legislative "graveyard."
bills that are referred to a committee are also referred
to a subcommittee. Hearings can be held at both the committee
and subcommittee levels and both can also "mark up" or
amend a bill. When a subcommittee has finished its work,
its members vote to refer the bill back to the full committee
or to keep the bill. If a subcommittee or committee votes
to keep a bill, instead of sending it on for further consideration,
the bill is dead. (PHOTO at Left: The Senate Appropriations
The policy jurisdiction of congressional committees is broadly
accepted and respected by members of Congress. Consequently,
committees are able to act as "gatekeepers," allowing
only serious and credible legislation to be considered by
the full House or Senate. This function is invaluable in
the legislative process because there is simply not enough
time for every bill introduced every session to be considered
on the floor. While it is possible, although through different
procedures, to force a committee to "discharge" a
bill for floor consideration, members are very reluctant
to encroach on committee jurisdiction and rarely do so.
Once a bill has been reported out of the committee or committees
to which it was assigned, it must be considered by all of
the members of the body in which it was introduced--either
the House or the Senate. Each house is guided by its own
set of complex procedural rules which define the structure
of the debate, what kinds of motions may be made in what
order and so on. The rules of both the House and Senate are
sufficiently complex that each body employs a full time "parliamentarian," an
expert in the rules and procedures of each house. When disputes
about the rules arise, the House member or Senator who is
presiding is called on to issue a ruling. The rulings of
the Chair become part of the precedents and rules of each
house, so such rulings are made carefully, usually after
consultation with the parliamentarian.
The differences between floor consideration in each house
are apparent even from the beginning. While the Majority
and Minority Party Leaders work together in the Senate to
determine when bills will come to the floor and under what
conditions they will be debated, the House is much more restrictive
in establishing its legislative calendar. Because it is more
than four times as large as the Senate, the House rules are
much more regimented and restrictive than they are in the
Senate. Tradition and Senate rules also give individual Senators
much more power during floor debate than House members enjoy.
Any Senator, for example, can attempt to bring up any bill
he or she chooses at any time. Because any other Senator
can filibuster (see below) the motion to consider a bill
brought up in this manner, however, the leadership of the
Senate generally works to secure the "unanimous consent" of
the Senate to consider bills at particular times.
In the House, a Committee on Rules establishes the time and duration of
debate on each bill that comes to the floor. In fact, each bill considered
by the House comes with a "rule" attached to it, a rule that
is created by the Rules Committee. In addition to the timing and extent
of the bill's floor consideration, the rule also specifies what, if any,
amendments may be made to the bill on the floor. The Rules Committee can
attach a closed, open, or modified-closed rule to each bill that comes
before it. As the names suggest, a closed rule does not allow for any amendments,
an open rule allows any number of amendments, and a modified-closed rule
allows for only a specific number or, more often, a specific pre-approved
list of amendments. There is no Rules Committee and, hence, no rules attached
to legislation in the Senate.
In both the House and the Senate, the allotted
time for debate on each piece of legislation is divided equally between
the two parties. Generally, the sponsor of the bill or the Chair of the
committee that reported the bill will be the "floor manager" for
the legislation, allowing other members to speak in favor of the bill.
A member who opposes the bill, usually from the opposing party, will manage
the time for those who wish to speak against the bill.
the rules governing floor debate in the House and Senate differ in important
ways. The most striking rule difference between the two bodies is the ability
of Senators to "filibuster" legislation they oppose.
A filibuster is an obstructive tactic employed by an individual Senator
or group of Senators who oppose a bill that would probably be supported
by a majority of the Senate. To prevent the Senate from considering and
voting on the bill, a Senator who is recognized by the Chair can simply
refuse to give up the floor, thereby preventing the Senate from moving
on to other business. To keep control of the floor, a Senator must simply
keep talking. During filibusters, Senators have literally read from the
phone book simply to have something to "say." While there have
been very lengthy filibusters in the Senate's history, most filibusters
today are "silent." To prevent all business in the Senate from
being brought to a grinding halt, the Senate considers legislation on two "tracks." While
a filibuster is active on one track, it can simply move over to the other
track and consider other legislation. The Senate has also provided a means
by which a filibuster can be ended. The Senate can invoke "cloture" and
cut off a filibuster if three-fifths of the Senate votes to do so. (PHOTO
at Right: House Members insert individual identification cards into voting "machines" (top)
located throughout the House Chamber and press "Yea," "Nay" or "Present." Their
votes are displayed on panels on the wall (bottom) above the Speaker's chair).
There is nothing in the House that even remotely resembles a filibuster.
In fact, the rules of the House are set up to allow a majority to do almost
anything it votes to do in that body. While the rules are complex and often
difficult to follow, a unified and determined majority, even a razor-thin
one, can pass whatever legislation it chooses in the House of Representatives.
In both the House and the Senate, once all allowable amendments have been
offered and voted on and the time set aside for debate has expired, the
full membership of each body votes on the legislation. A bill must win
the support of a majority of those present to "pass." Voting
in the Senate is by voice--Senators call out "yea" or "nay" when
their names or called--and by electronic device in the House.
In order for a bill to move on in the legislative process, it must be
passed in identical form by both the House and the Senate. If
the two houses cannot reconcile their differences on a bill, it cannot
be considered further and it dies.
but not identical bills are frequently passed by the House and the Senate,
the Congress has established a mechanism for resolving House-Senate differences
without starting the process all over again. When similar bills are passed
by both houses, they are referred to a special, temporary "Conference
Committee," comprised of members of both houses and of both parties.
Members on Conference Committees are charged with working out the differences
between the two versions of the bill and creating a compromise version
which is then sent back to each house. At this stage in the process, no
amendments are allowed. The full membership of the House and Senate must
simply choose to accept or reject the Conference Committee's "Report," which
details the compromise version of the bill. If the Report is accepted,
the bill is forwarded to the President. If not, the bill is dead.
The Role of the President
Bills passed in identical form by both the House and the Senate are sent
to the President to be signed or vetoed. If the President signs the bill,
it becomes law. However, if the President vetoes the bill, it is rejected,
but the Congress may attempt to override the veto. A veto can be overridden
if a two-thirds majority in both houses votes to do so. (The President
can also choose to allow a bill to become law without signing a bill.)
The President can use the veto power as a bargaining tool in the legislative
process. Because it is difficult to secure two-thirds majorities in favor
of legislation in both houses, a presidential veto generally means that
a bill is dead--the large majority of bills that are vetoed, however,
are not overridden. Consequently, by suggesting what provisions are acceptable
in a piece of legislation and which ones are not, the President can influence
the content of the bills the Congress sends to the President's desk. Presidents
must be careful, however, not to use the threat of a veto too frequently,
because the Congress may refuse to work with a President who attempts to "bully" its
members. (PHOTO at Right: President Bush Signing the Americans
with Disabilities Act (ADA)).
1995, the Congress voted to extend the President's veto power by authorizing
the use of a "line-item veto" on appropriations bills. Under the conditions
established by the Congress, the President could use the line-item
veto to lower or remove objectionable spending requests from a bill.
The Supreme Court, however, ruled the Congress's attempt to alter the
President's constitutionally authorized veto power through legislation
(instead of a constitutional amendment) unconstitutional. The President
of the United States does not have line-item veto authority.
Evaluating the Process
creating a bicameral legislature with a separate executive branch with
the ability to veto legislation, the Framers clearly intended to create
a system of government in which it was difficult to act and comparatively
easy to block action. Their efforts have proven resoundingly successful.
The legislative process in just the House or Senate alone is often
mind-numbingly slow and complicated. Guiding a bill through two houses
is a seemingly impossible task. However, each year, a sizable number
of bills, a few of them significant but most of them less-so, are passed
by the Congress and signed into law by the President.
More About the Legislative Process
Our Laws Are Made Revised
and Updated by Charles W. Johnson Parliamentarian, United
States House of Representatives
of a Law by
Robert B. Dove, Parliamentarian, United States Senate
of the House and the Rules
of the Senate