How a Bill Becomes Law

The process of producing and enacting legislation reveals how difficult and time-consuming lawmaking can be — and how many opportunities there are for interested citizens or groups to make their views known to legislators. As citizens, as union members, and as legislative representatives, we must make the most of those opportunities to advance our interests. Those groups which oppose us most certainly will.

What follows is a brief, step-by-step description of the law-making process (see Appendix A – Path of Legislation Chart, and Appendix B – Summary and Glossary of Terms).

Introducing a bill is very easy; there is really no reason not to, even if the representative knows there is no chance of passage. Consequently, only a minute fraction of those bills introduced ever became law.

Bills may be introduced any time Congress is in session. Significant legislation, especially that advocated by the executive branch, is often introduced in similar form in both houses of Congress simultaneously. This is not, however, necessary, or always the case.

Once a bill has been introduced, it is assigned a bill number. In the House, bills are assigned a “House Resolution” or “H.R.” number. An example would be H.R. 5, our striker replacement bill. Senate bills are assigned simply an “S” for “Senate” number. Remember, legislation introduced at the same time in the House and Senate will almost always have a different number. This is the easiest way to track a bill’s passage through the legislative labyrinth. All bills which have not been enacted into law by the end of the two year Congressional term die. These proposals must then be introduced all over again in the next Congress.

Impetus for legislation comes from many sources. It may come from an individual legislator on his/her own initiative; a committee may draft legislation following investigative hearings; the President or an executive branch agency may propose a bill (it must be introduced, of course, by a member of Congress); or an individual or group may convince their representative(s) of the need for a given measure.

What transpires after a particular bill has been introduced is the same for all practical purposes in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. These two bodies operate independently of each other, although both must approve a bill for it to become law.

After being assigned a bill number, it is then referred to a committee (or committees) for consideration and study. Technically, the Speaker of the House and the presiding officer of the Senate do this job, but most of the time the referral is made on their behalf by the parliamentarians of the two chambers. Precedent, law, and the jurisdiction of the various committees, as set out in the rules of the House and the Senate, determine which committee receives which bill.

Increasingly, bills are referred to more than one committee, as many problems spill over the boundaries of several committees’ jurisdictions. Of course, the more committees that consider a piece of legislation, the more chances opponents have to derail it. In the House of Representatives, the Speaker has the option to create an ad hoc committee to deal with bills that overlap the authority of several committees. This procedure is not allowed in the Senate.

Most bills never make it past the committee stage. Each committee has its own staff, and builds up expertise and experience in those matters under its jurisdiction. Only in this way could Congress hope to adequately evaluate all the proposals that come before it. Frivolous, unpopular or inexpertly drafted legislation can be simply ignored.

In the initial stages, bills are not normally considered by the entire committee, but are further referred by the committee chairman to the appropriate subcommittee.

Hearings are theoretically designed to explore the proposed legislation in detail, to discover all possible weaknesses, problems and ramifications. In practice, they tend to be much less spontaneous than this statement might imply. The list of witnesses is determined by the committee (or subcommittee); everyone who is interested is not automatically entitled to testify. Thus, committee chairmen with a particular prejudice toward a given bill can stack the hearings by inviting only those in favor or against the proposed legislation to appear. Attendance by committee or subcommittee members tends to be low, unless the topic has national (and therefore media) significance. Protracted hearings can often effectively kill a bill’s chance of passage because it gets stuck in the committee and never gets voted on before the final session ends.

These caveats should not, however, be taken to suggest that hearings are totally meaningless, pro forma exercises. They remain vital sources of background information and data on the subject of the bill. The hearing transcript which the committee publishes can be a useful reference document. Copies can be obtained from the chairman of the committee or subcommittee holding the hearing, or from the Government Printing Office (GPO). Hearings can also play an important role in building interest in, and momentum for, a bill’s passage (or defeat), especially if the hearing receives much coverage on television and in the newspapers. For interested parties, the hearing offers one way to ensure that the individual or group’s concerns are brought to the attention of the committee members.

Not all committee hearings result from proposed legislation. Some of the most famous (or infamous) hearings were held to investigate particular issues or problems, to determine if a need for legislation existed. The 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, the hearing in the 1960s on the Vietnam War held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Watergate hearings in the 1970s, and the Iran-Contra hearings, are all well-known examples of this type of investigative hearing.

After the hearings are completed, the members of the committee meet to determine whether or not to recommend passage, and, if so, the precise language of the bill. This laborious process involves going through the proposed legislation , literally line by line, adding, deleting, and changing the words as necessary. Issues of substances are debated, and political compromises are made at this point, all in the interests of ensuring enough votes from the committee or subcommittee members to recommend passage. A report is drafted by the majority in favor of the legislation, explaining the reasoning for the committee’s actions (although the minority is allowed to attach its dissenting viewpoint as well). The report is published; a transcript of the mark-up session is not.

After the committee members agree to the language and approve a bill, the legislation may then have to be sent on to another committee if more that one has been given jurisdiction over it. This second, and any other subsequent committees, would follow the same procedure outlined above. Once all the requisite committees have looked at a piece of legislation, the bill is sent back to the full House for consideration, where it is placed on the calendar of the House or Senate to be scheduled for floor action.

The piece of legislation is now subject to consideration and debate by the full House of the full Senate. It can still be amended at this stage, indeed totally altered from the form in which it emerged from the committee. The transcript of the debate and any other action can be found in the Congressional Record (not always a verbatim transcript, as congressmen are allowed to edit and add material), published daily when Congress is in session.

Sometimes, the same proposal will be considered concurrently in both the House and Senate. In other instances, legislation passes by one body must then be introduced in the other, where the process of referral to committee, hearings, etc., starts all over again.

Usually, the House and Senate version of a given piece of legislation are not precisely the same. The differences may be minor details of language, or substantive alternative approaches. Both bodies must then appoint members to a conference committee, which meets to resolve the differences. Specific ground rules govern these sessions: no new proposals may be added at this stage; provisions, already the same in both versions, must be retained; only the differences may be compromised.

The version ultimately agreed upon by the conference committee is then sent back to the House and Senate for final consideration. At this point, the proposal may be debated, and then voted up or down. The conference committee version may not, however, be amended. Once it has been passed by both houses of Congress, the bill is referred to as an “act.”

If passed by both houses of Congress, the act is then sent to the President to be signed into law or vetoed. If the President holds the act for ten days, however, and does not veto it, it becomes law without his signature (this provision does not apply in the last ten days before Congress adjourns). If vetoed, the act returns to Congress, which must then pass it with a two-thirds majority in each house to override the presidential veto. Historically, very few vetoes have been overridden. President Bush used the veto as a weapon against the Democratic Congress, having only one of over 30 vetoes overridden.

Once enacted into law, the act is assigned a Public Law (PL) number. The PL number is not the same as the bill number. The new law is then incorporated into the US Code.

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