The U.S. Legislative Process

How a Bill Becomes a Law

The Long and Winding Road to Victory

As you will learn below, there are any number of places that a bill can get lost on the way to becoming a law, and most do just that. In the last Congress, more than 6,000 bills were introduced and only about 500 were passed into law. Fewer still establish substantive policy, since most bills passed by Congress deal with non-controversial issues such as the naming of a post office. Those bills that make or change important policies only pass as a result of deep commitment by the public or other interested parties. With each positive step forward—such as a new piece of legislation—the voices of the status quo continue to use the politics of fear, attempting to delay action and promote their own short-term interests. That’s why UCS, our coalition partners, and our activists have to be there at every step of the process, making sure that Congress passes strong, science-based legislation to make our world cleaner and safer, strengthen the economy, and enhance national security.

Bill Introduction
Although the concept for a piece of legislation can come from anyone, only a member of Congress can introduce a bill. In the House of Representatives, the lawmaker places the bill in the hopper—a box located on the House Clerk’s desk—and in the Senate, the lawmaker introduces the bill on the Senate floor with recognition from the presiding officer. Members may demonstrate formal support for a colleague’s proposal by becoming co-sponsors of the bill.

After the bill is assigned a number, it is referred to the relevant committee for their careful review. The entire bill or pieces of it may also be referred to other appropriate committees or to a subcommittee for more specialized review.

In Subcommittee
If a bill is sent to a subcommittee, the members of the subcommittee may hold hearings to gather the testimony of experts, supporters, and opponents of the bill. Amendments, or changes to the bill proposed by members of Congress, are debated and then voted on for acceptance or rejection during a mark up session. The subcommittee then votes on whether to report the bill and its amendments back to the full committee. A subcommittee may table a bill if it decides to stop action on it.

In Committee
Similar to a subcommittee, when a bill is in committee, the members of the committee may hold hearings to gather the testimony of experts, supporters, and opponents of the bill. Amendments, or changes to the bill proposed by members of Congress, are debated and voted on for acceptance or rejection during a mark up session. If there are substantial amendments to the bill, the committee may introduce a clean version with a new bill number. Following mark up, the committee votes on whether to report the bill and its amendments out of committee and send it to the House or Senate floor. Like a subcommittee, a full committee may table a bill if it decides to stop action on it.

Floor Action
After passing out of full committee, the bill is placed on the calendar for House or Senate “floor action.” In the House, the Rules Committee will determine the rules that govern floor action, such as the length of debate or whether amendments can be offered. During floor action, members debate the bill and offer amendments (if allowed). In the House, amendments must be germane to the subject of the bill, but not in the Senate. As such, senators may introduce riders, or irrelevant amendments. And while the length of debate is usually limited by the Rules Committee in the House, there is no limit in the Senate, thus enabling senators to filibuster, or delay/prevent a vote with extended debate. Two-fifths of the senate or 60 votes are needed to invoke cloture, or end debate. Since filibusters are common for any controversial bill in the Senate, such bills generally require 60 votes to end debate and allow an up or down vote. When a bill is put to an up or down vote in either chamber, a quorum of members must be in attendance on the floor and a majority (218 votes in the House and 51 votes in the Senate) of “aye” votes are needed for passage. The bill is considered engrossed when it has been passed out of the chamber and certified by the Clerk. It is then referred to the other chamber unless a similar bill is already undergoing the legislative process in that chamber. Legislation must pass out of both chambers in order to continue toward becoming law.

Conference Committee
Especially with major legislation, there are likely to be differences between the two bills passed out of the House and Senate. Conferees are designated from both chambers to negotiate and find consensus on conflicting provisions and the final conference report is sent back to the House and Senate for approval. Once the bill has been approved by both chambers, it is sent to the president, where the bill is considered enrolled.

President
The president has several options to take with the enrolled bill:

  • The president does not take action and the bill automatically becomes law after 10 days when Congress is in session.
  • The president does not take action and the bill dies because Congress is not in session. This is referred to as a pocket veto.
  • The president vetoes the bill and sends it back to the chamber where it originated from with a report of the reasons for the veto.
  • The president signs the bill and it becomes law.

Bill Becomes Law
There are three ways a bill can become law:

  • The president does not take action and it automatically becomes law after 10 days when Congress is in session.
  • The president signs the bill.
  • Congress overrides the presidential veto and the bill becomes law. A two-thirds majority vote is needed in both chambers to override the veto.

THOMAS is a Library of Congress website where you can track the status of legislation and find other information, such as the text of the bill and amendments, co-sponsor lists, and vote results.

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