Posted by: newperspectives85 | January 6, 2012

How does a bill become law

American Government Summer 2011

Describe the process by which a bill becomes (or is rejected from becoming) law in detail.

There are several steps by which a bill becomes or is rejected from becoming a law. The first step involves members of Congress introducing legislation to the House or Senate, and the proposal is assigned to a committee. If further action is taken, hearings take place over the issue at hand, and report the bill to the full committee. Once the bill is reported to the committee, debates are scheduled so that interested members can express their views, which can help move the bill forward or kill it. If the bill passes and is amended, then it has to get the vote of Congress, and then the president looks at it to decide whether to sign the bill into law or veto it. For a bill to come to fruition, it must be introduced as a proposal.
The first step in making laws is for the legislation to be introduced. Most of them come from outside Congress but only members can submit. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) state that “many proposals originate outside Congress from the executive branch, interest groups, and constituents, but they must have a congressional sponsor to enter the legislative process” (p.293). This means that if one from the executive branch, interest group, or a constituent wants to make something that concerns them into law, they need to have connections with people in Congress to present the legislation. There are two things that the parties must do to have the legislation introduced. According to Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008), “the parties responsible try to line up cosponsors both to build support by sharing credit and to display that support increasing the chances for legislative action” (p.294). For example, if a party wants to submit something about national teen dating violence month, then he or she will get a co-sponsor, or someone interested to help them out, along with others so the bill has a better chance due to more people supporting the legislation. After the proposal, the bill is assigned to a committee
Once the legislation has been introduced, it goes on to a committee designed to deal with certain bills. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) state that “most bills are routinely assigned to the appropriate committee, but complex bills are sometimes referred to several committees, and controversial bills are occasionally handled by temporary ad hoc committees appointed for that single purpose” (p.294). An example of this could be a piece of legislation for religious freedom in a foreign country. That piece of legislation may go to a committee that deals with human rights. An example of a complex bill may deal with health care, and may go to several committees. Controversial bills are the hardest so they have will need specific solutions, which is an ad hoc committee—it is something for a specific problem, maybe a one time thing. The bills that are routinely assigned may or may not go any further due to lack of action. There could be hundreds of bills that sit and are not dealt with. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) state that “many more bills are introduced than members have time to deal with, which is roughly two thousand in a typical two year Congress” (p.294). This means many bills die at this stage. After a committee decides to look at a bill and it passes, then they may hold a hearing.
If a bill is acted upon, it then goes to a hearing. Once this happens, more people actively participate, especially those who have a say in the proposed bill. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) state that “once the subcommittee decides to act, it may hold hearings inviting interested people to testify in person or in writing about the issue at stake and proposals to deal with it” (p.294-295). If for example, someone is concerned about legislation dealing with child abuse, then they can speak on behalf of those who have been abused or act as an advocate for children. In addition to the proposals discussed, there may be other things to look at, such as evaluations of current programs. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) state that “hearings may be orchestrated to make a record for or against a particular proposal, to evaluate how a program is working, or simply to generate publicity for committee members as well as issues” (p.294-295). Afterwards, a bill will either be rejected or accepted. The survival of the bill is dependent on the vote of the members, and one of two things can happen to affect the outcome. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) state that “if a bill cannot attract solid support from at least the majority party committee members, its chances on the House or Senate floor are slim indeed” (p.295). Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) also state that “but if amendments, compromises, and deals can build a strong committee coalition for a bill, its chances on the floor are very good” (p.295). If the bill survives the committee, it is then passed on for debate.
After surviving the committee, it is then put on a specific calendar for action depending on the type of bill it is. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) state that “in the House of Representatives, noncontroversial bills are put on the Consent Calendar if it is a public bill or Private Calendar to be passed without debate” (p.295). Examples of these may include bills promoting teen dating violence month or child abuse month. The same cannot be said for controversial bills as they are put on one of two calendars. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) state that “controversial or important bills are placed on the Union Calendar, which deals with money bills or House Calendar, along with other public bills” (p.298). An example of a controversial bill is the Patriot Act or No Child Left Behind Act from the Bush Administration. The committee must then ask for a rule. According to Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008), a rule is “a resolution specifying when and how long a bill will be debated and under what procedures, which may permit amendments from the floor, or open rule, only certain amendments under restricted rule, or no amendments, meaning closed rule” (p.298). This means that a bill can be debated for days or even months based on the type of rule used. Unanimous consent then takes place. According to Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008), “unanimous consent agreements are similar to a rule from the House Rules Committee in which leaders of both the Senate and the House limit time for debate, determine which amendments are allowable, and provide for waivers of standard Senate procedures” (p.299). In unanimous consent agreements, debate time is limited, but without an agreement, a filibuster can happen. According to Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008), “a filibuster happens when individuals or small groups hold the floor making endless speeches so no action can be taken on the bill in an attempt to kill it” (p.299). Filibusters may consist of ideological persuasion or any form of delay tactic to keep the bill from passing. With the endless speeches, it is hard to make a decision. If the speeches are long enough, the bill can either die or cloture can take place. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) state that “cloture requires an extraordinary three-fifths majority of the Senate membership, allowing for a maximum of thirty additional hours of debate on a bill before a vote must be taken” (p.299). This means that despite a filibuster, there is still a chance for the bill to be debated, but it takes sixty percent of the Senate to allow additional time. In addition to the Senate debating, the House does so as well, however, since most of the action such as adding amendments or other things are taken care of in Senate, the House’s job is not as cumbersome.
Debate time in the House is split between two groups. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) state that “in the House, the time for debate is divided equally between the proponents and opponents of a bill” (p.300). The House does not have to deal with as many procedures as the Senate does when looking at a bill. Examples include how many people have to be present and filibusters are not as present in the House. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) state that “the Committee of the Whole, a quorum, or the number of members who must be present for the House to act officially, is one hundred rather than the usual majority of 218” (p.300). It does not take as many people to act on a bill. In the House, debates are more about people making an informed decision rather than having endless speeches like in the Senate. Endless speeches do not work in the House because the members have more experience in knowing when someone is trying to delay decisions on a bill. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) argue that “floor debates do not change many minds because, jaded by experience, politicians are rarely swayed by one another’s eloquence” (p.300). Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) also state that “debates are for public consumption: to make arguments that members will use to justify their votes to constituents and others, to shape public perceptions through the media, to guide administrators and courts when they apply and interpret the legislation, and to stake out partisan positions” (p.300-302).
The bill’s fate in passing Congress depends on votes. There are several people who strongly influence Congress’ decision in whether the bill progresses to the president. (revise) According to Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008), “political scientist John Kingdon found out that members of Congress decide to vote by going with their views, along with the opinions of constituents and the advice of knowledgeable and trusted colleagues and all these have the strongest influence on their decisions” (p.302). Based on their political views, counsel from their colleagues, and the peoples’ opinion, members of Congress decide on whether the bill passes or fails. Congress also act as political scientists and anticipate how people will vote. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) argue that “often members are aware of what their constituents want without having to tell them, and other times rely on letters, phone calls, faxes, e-mails, text messages, editorials, and polls to get a sense of what people think” (p.302). They try to predict how people will vote so they can get an idea on what to do. They are looking for an explainable vote. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) states that as members try to figure out how people will act, “the idea is the cast an explainable vote, one that can be defended if it is brought up by a challenger in some future campaign” (p.302). The members will defend that vote through all the resources they have from people such as letters, phone calls, faxes, text messages, and editorials. After the passing vote, the bill is sent to each chamber to work on the different versions.
If a bill came from the House or Senate, then it will go to the other chamber to be considered. One of two things can happen: either the bill can be unchanged or differences between the House and Senate have to be reconciled. According to Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008), “if the second chamber passes the bill unchanged, it is sent to the White House for the president’s signature or veto” (p.304). However, there are bills that have different versions, resulting in differences needing to be reconciled. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) state that “controversial bills often pass the House and Senate in different versions, so that the two bodies have to reconcile the differences in the versions before the bill can leave Congress, which is done through conference committees” (p.304). Conference committees meet to work out the differences and come to an agreement, after each group vote. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) state that “each chamber votes as a separate unit in conference, and a bill is not reported out of conference to the House and Senate until it receives the approval of majorities of both delegations” (p.304). After both groups make a decision, the come together and make their statements to each other. According to Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008), “once conferees reach agreement on a bill, they report the details to each chamber…If both chambers approve the report, the bill is sent to the president” (p.304). After going through the rigorous process of having the bill consolidated into one version, it then goes on to the president.
The president has several choices when he receives a bill from Congress. According to Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008), “the president has the choice of signing the bill into law; ignore the bill, with the result that it becomes law in ten days, which does not include Sundays, or veto the bill, meaning reject it” (p.305). The bill automatically becomes law in ten days even if the president ignores it. However, the president could veto it himself, and they have to explain what prompted him to do so. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) state that “when presidents veto a bill, they usually send a statement to Congress, and therefore to all Americans, that explains why they took such action” (p.306). After all the effort in getting the bill to the president, it would be logical for him to offer an explanation as to why he vetoed it. Despite the president’s power to veto the bill, Congress can actually override it with one condition. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) state that “Congressional override of a presidential veto requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber, and if the override succeeds, the bill becomes law” (p.306). Regardless of Congress having power to override the president’s veto, the bill faces an ultimate enemy because the veto stands in the way of the bill becoming law. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) states that “the veto is a major weapon in the presidential arsenal as the president can threaten to kill any legislative proposal they find unsatisfactory, usually leaving Congress with no choice but to cut presidents in on deals” (p.306). Despite the president’s power to veto or sign a bill into law, Congress can make his job difficult because the passing of a bill can get people to passionately express their views.
The process of a bill becoming law is thorough. It first comes as a proposal by someone wanting to influence society. It then has to be looked at by a committee, which may or may not be done because of so many bills passing through and so little time. Afterwards, if the proposal is approved by the committee, then hearings are made, not just on that proposal, but on other laws currently in effect that they review regularly. At this point, everyone can have a say on the proposed legislation. Some of the debates can be long because some people filibuster the proposed bill, resulting in its chances of passing decreasing. If it manages to survive the filibuster, the Senate has the responsibility of working out any differences due to the various versions the bill may present itself in. After a long journey, the bill makes it to the president and how the bill becomes law depends on him and Congress, because they both have power to veto or sign the bill.

Kernell, Samuel, Gary C. Jacobson, and Thad Kousser. (2008). The Logic of American Politics. Fourth Edition. Washington, D.C: CQ Press



  1. I believe this site has got some really great info for everyone. “The individual will always be a minority. If a man is in a minority of one, we lock him up.” by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: