The Legislative Process

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The 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.

The 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

While 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.

Once 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

Before 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.

Members 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

Once 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 agenda. 

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."

Most 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 Committee Room).

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.

Floor Consideration

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.

Watching the Congress

The United States Congress is one of the most open national legislative bodies in the world. Floor proceedings in both the House and Senate are televised on cable television. Video feeds can also be viewed on the Internet at C-SPAN's web site. There are galleries for the public and press in both houses and there are legislative update pages on both the House and Senate web sites. What's going on in the Congress right now? Follow the links below to find out!

 

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.

Again, 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.

Conference Committees

Because similar 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)).

In 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

By 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.

Learn More About the Legislative Process

How Our Laws Are Made Revised and Updated by Charles W. Johnson Parliamentarian, United States House of Representatives

Enactment of a Law by Robert B. Dove, Parliamentarian, United States Senate

Read the Rules of the House and the Rules of the Senate