The Legislative Process and How a Bill Becomes a Law

September 21, 2009


The Legislative Process


How a Bill Becomes a Law


The Legislative Process

There are two chambers in Congress: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each U.S. citizen has two senators and one representative. Your local RESULTS chapter may be in contact with several representatives, depending on where you live, in addition to your two senators. RESULTS works to influence both the House and the Senate and sometimes the president as well.

Throughout the year, you may contact your members of Congress more than once on the same pieces of legislation.

For example, early in the year you might ask your representatives to contact committee leaders during the writing of a bill and urge for greater funding levels for key programs.

Then, when bills we support are formally introduced into Congress, your may ask your members of Congress to cosponsor the legislation, which publicly shows their support for the bill. With thousands of bills being introduced each year, bills with many cosponsors are more likely to make it to the next phase of the process.

The next phase of the process after the bill is introduced is for the bill to be sent to the Congressional committee, which can consider the bill and even propose important changes.

If one of your members of Congress sits on a committee that is considering a piece of legislation that RESULTS has a strong interest in, they can play an important role in shaping policy or funding decisions. Weighing in when a bill is being revised in committee — known as “marking up” — is an important step in the legislative process. But even if your member of Congress doesn’t sit on the committee in question, they can still influence the process by contacting members of that committee.

Once the committee considers and passes a bill, it is sent to the full House or Senate for debate and a vote. During debate before the full house or full Senate, RESULTS volunteers often work to build support for certain amendments, or urge passage or defeat of others. This process happens in both the House and the Senate. We’ll often be working to move legislation through both chambers at the same time.

Then once the bill has passed both the House and Senate, any differences between the House version and the Senate version are worked out in what is called a conference committee. RESULTS works to influence members of the conference committee to make sure provisions we support are included in the final bill. Once a compromise is reached in the conference committee, the final compromise bill is voted on by both the full House and Senate, with no amendments. If passed, the bill is then sent to the White House for the president’s signature or veto.

Here’s an example of legislation that RESULTS volunteers helped get passed. For four years, RESULTS volunteers worked to protect and expand Head Start, a preschool program for low-income children and their families here in the United States. RESULTS activists like you worked hard to shape a bill before it was even drafted by meeting face to face with members of Congress. Our volunteers also did great work to generate dozens of editorials across the country that influenced the debate. And, they also helped fight off amendments in committee that would have weakened Head Start substantially. Because of all this tireless work, we got a good bill passed. Volunteers then weighed in with key negotiators in the conference committee that followed. A final compromise bill passed the House and Senate, and was signed into law by President Bush in December 2007. The result? Greater access to early learning opportunities for infants and toddlers, and improvement in the quality of Head Start for almost one million children.

The more you learn about how Congress works, the more you can make a difference. Over the years, RESULTS has successfully advocated for billions of dollars for health and education programs around the world. We have helped create vitally important changes in everything from Food Stamp eligibility, to World Bank policy on education, to microfinance. And it’s people like you, our passionate and savvy grassroots activists, who make it happen. This is true democracy — not a concept, but a real day-to-day experience — and by working together we will change the world.


How a Bill Becomes a Law

This process begins with the creation of an idea for a new law. The idea can come from anywhere or anyone — individual citizens, NGOs, think-tanks, universities, or others — but it must be proposed by a member of Congress, who, by introducing the legislation in Congress, becomes its sponsor.

Every year, thousands of bills are introduced or “dropped” (proposed a second time). In the process of being ratified (approved), first a bill is referred to the appropriate standing (permanent) committee within whichever house it was originally proposed. The bill is examined carefully, and the committee seeks input (formally called an Executive Agency Comment) from relevant departments and agencies before determining its chances for passage.


Subcommittee and Full Committee Consideration

The bill will often be referred to a subcommittee for study. Either the committee or subcommittee may set a date for a public hearing, in order to gain input from other individuals. The committee may then either “kill” (reject) the bill or meet to change/alter the bill in a “markup session.” A subcommittee that has met to mark up a bill will subsequently submit the revised bill to its full committee, which will vote whether to recommend it to the full chamber. This process is referred to as “ordering a bill reported.”


Consideration by Each Full Chamber (the House and the Senate)

After the vote, staff prepares a written report on the bill. The bill and its report are then placed on a calendar of chamber business and are scheduled for floor action by the majority-party leadership. A bill that is “on the floor” will be considered in the full assembly of the chamber (the House or the Senate). Often, House bills are considered by the Committee of the Whole, whereby a smaller group of House members meet to debate the bill in order to increase the efficiency of the process. The full House will then approve the decisions of the Committee of the Whole.

Following debate and/or approval of any amendments to the bill “on the floor,” the bill is either passed with a majority vote or defeated by the voting members. If passed, the bill is referred to the other chamber, which can also determine to submit the bill to a committee or subcommittee for study. The full chamber may then approve, reject, ignore, or change the bill.


Reconciliation through the Formation of a Conference Committee

Generally, the House and the Senate will each create its own version of the bill. Thus, a conference committee is established to reconcile the differences into one version of the bill. A conference committee is a type of joint committee that will issue a conference committee report; the report is a complete draft of the bill, usually representing a compromise. It is submitted to each house for consideration without having the potential of being altered in any way. If the houses do not agree with the report, the bill dies. However, if both chambers agree, the conference report is sent to the president.


Presidential Action

The president may take the following actions:

  1. approve the bill by signing it into law
  2. veto (strike down) the bill
  3. take no action for ten days; if Congress is in session, it automatically becomes a law; if Congress has adjourned its second session, the bill has been “pocket-vetoed” and dies.

Should the president veto the bill, Congress can attempt to override the veto with at least a two-thirds majority vote by a quorum, i.e., the minimum number of members that need to be present in order for Congress to do business.


What is Legislation and What are its Four Forms?

The act of making a law is called “legislation” and there are four forms of legislation that Congress may use. The first two forms, a bill and a joint resolution, are proposed new laws that are binding (possessing the force of law) if enacted. Bills are the most common form of legislation, and joint resolutions differ only in that they are used to propose constitutional amendments, which require a two-thirds affirmative vote in each house but are not submitted to the president; if ratified by three-quarters of the States, these joint resolutions become effective. The third form of Congressional action is a concurrent resolution which is non-binding (therefore not possessing the force of law) and is employed to express facts, principles, opinions, and purposes of both houses. Perhaps the most important concurrent resolution enacted every year is the budget resolution (see the Federal Budget Process to learn more). Finally, simple resolutions do not become laws and raise matters related to the rules, the operation, or the opinion of either chamber alone.

For your own reference, you can search for the status of any bill on Thomas, a Library of Congress website:

Read about the Federal Budget and Appropriations Process to learn more about the appropriations process, which incorporates the material explained on this page and is essential to our work at RESULTS.

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