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Legislative process

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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Bills generally originate in the House of Representatives and then goes through the Senate.

While there are Senate-originated bills, this category does not address such bills. However, all bills must pass both the House and Senate. Each institution has its own set of rules.

The legislative process is broken up below into sequential steps.

Step 1: House of Representatives

In the House of Representatives, the Speaker of the House assigns bills to committees. The Speaker of the House works with a parliamentarian to make this assignment, called a referral.

In the case of a single referral, the bill is handed by the Speaker of the House to a single committee. The committee chairman will typically pass the bill to a subcommittee. From here on, the subcommittee holds hearings where the bill is marked up. Marking up refers to modification of the bills, including amendments that are proposed and voted on. Afterward marking up, the subcommittee votes on the bill and passes it to the full committee. The full committee holds hearings, gathers information, marks up the bill further, proposes and votes on amendments and then the committee votes on the bill (as amended, if necessary).

Once the committee(s) complete furbishing the bill, it is sent to the Rules Committee. The Rules Committee establishes rules of debate by declaring a rules package. The rules package: sets limits on how long the bill can be debated; decides whether some or all amendments are open or closed; and allows a motion to recommit. A motion to recommit gives opponents of the bill an opportunity to vote to send it back to committee. After this, the Rules Committee votes on the Rules Package. If approved, the bill and rules package goes to the floor of the House.

Once the Rules Committee sends the bill to the floor of the House, debate occurs in five steps:

  1. Members debate the rules package. Time is equally divided between supports and opponents of the rules. Members vote on the Rules Package.

  2. Debate over the amendments begin. MC proposing an amendment is recognized. The process is repeated as necessary until all amendments have been disposed of.

  3. Debate on the floor over bill (as amended, if necessary). Time divided equally between supporters and opponents of amendments.

  4. Members vote on the motion to recommit. This means that Members vote to send the bill back to its respective committee(s).

  5. House votes on the underlying bill. If approved, the bill is sent to the Senate.

These debates typically consist only of speeches. Rather than exchange of ideas, the Member of Congress talking will be mostly alone in the chamber. This means that most debates occur in the presence of very few representatives. However, these debates are broadcast on CSPAN (the majority party controls the camera) and many representatives hope to achieve a sound byte.

Step 2: Senate

The flow of a bill through the Senate is similar to its path through the House of Representatives.

The Senate Majority leader can assign bills to committee(s). This power is non-exclusive. Subcommittees hold hearings, gather information, mark up the bill, propose and vote on amendments and then vote on the bill. If passed, the full committee holds hearings, gathers further information, marks up the bill and then the full committee votes on the bill (as amended if amended). The bill then enters floor debate.

Floor debate begins. All senators must agree unanimously to end debate (unanimous consent resolutions can limit debate beforehand) or successfully invoke cloture. Cloture requires sixty votes and limits debate to thirty additional hours. After debate, a vote must be taken on the bill.

If the bill is passed on the Senate, there are two possibilities:

  1. The Senate bill is identical to House version. The bill goes to the President. See Part IIIA below.

  2. The Senate bill is different from the House version. The bills goes to the Conference Committee. See Part IIIB below.

Step 3a: The President

The bill does become a law if:

  1. The President signs the bill

  2. The President refuses to sign the bill, and Congress is still in session for the next 10 days. With or without his signature it will become.

The bill does not become law if:

  1. The President issues a standard veto. This typically includes a list of objections to be sent back to Congress.

  2. The President issues a pocket veto. A pocket veto occurs when the President refuses to sign and Congress does not adjourn within the next 10 days. Also, this can occur if the President is pondering a bill. A pocket veto cannot be overrode because Congress has not adjourned (is not present).

Step 3b: Conference Committee

If the Senate version of the bill is NOT identical to House version, the bill goes to the Conference Committee. The Conference Committee members are chosen by the Speaker of the House. This gives the Speaker of the House another opportunity to prohibit a bill, by sending opponents of the bill to the Conference Committee. There are two possible outcomes:

  1. If the Conference Committee does not compromise the bill, the bill dies.

  2. If there is a compromise, the bill returns to House and Senate for an up or down vote. A majority vote sends the bill to the President.

Step 4: Congressional override

If the President vetoes the bill, 2/3 vote in both chambers if required to override the veto and make the bill law.