I took an entire semester
-long political science
course that only dealt with this topic. So this node is a slight oversimplification, and I encourage you to go elsewhere to flesh out your understanding of the legislative process. http://thomas.loc.gov/home/lawsmade.toc.html explains all of this in nauseating detail.
Also note that bills are not the only things that become laws. Joint resolutions of Congress can also become laws in a similar fashion, although they are not approved by the White House in the same way that bills are.
1. Somebody creates the bill
Anybody can create a bill: a member of Congress, the President, you, me. Lobbyists in Washington, DC draw much of their strength from the fact that they know how to write bills, and can often hand a member of Congress a nicely-written law, ready to be introduced for debate.
Bills invariably start out like this:
For the establishment of __________
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that....
And so on. If the bill relates to raising revenue for the government, it has to be introduced in the House: otherwise, it can be first introduced in the House or the Senate. When it is introduced to the House, it is given a serial number starting with the letters H.R.: in the Senate, its number starts with S. So the first bill of the year in the House would be called "H.R. 1," or "S. 1" in the Senate.
2. The bill is introduced and sent to a committee
To introduce a bill in the House, a representative inserts it into a hopper: in the Senate, a Senator hands it to the clerk. Whoever signs and introduces the bill becomes the bill's "sponsor" for the rest of its life. More than one person can sponsor a bill if they want to: this is how we get names like Taft-Hartley Act or Hawley-Smoot Tariff.
There are now two mechanisms in which the bill can be summarily killed. In the House, it must be sent to a Rules Committee, a small group dominated by members of the majority party who will then decide which standing committee to send it to for deliberation. In the Senate, any of the 100 senators can object to the bill, and either stall or kill its passing. (This doesn't happen that often.)
Now, the bill will go to a standing committee of the house in which it was introduced. Both houses have a handful of committees, such as Armed Services, Foreign Relations, and Transportation, which specialize in particular areas of policymaking. In most committees, the bill will be sent to a particular subcommittee (for example, the Railroad Subcommittee in the Transportation Committee), where a smaller group of even more specialized legislators will look over it, edit it, add language, and remove language until they all agree that it's good to go. Then, the revised bill is sent back to the standing committee as a whole, which further edits, expands, and contracts its language until they all like what it says.
While a bill is in the committee process, the committees will often invite expert witnesses in to testify on its merits. A foreign relations bill will always bring high-ranking officials of the Department of State and Central Intelligence Agency into the Capitol's chambers, while an armed services bill will invariably draw the entire brass of the United States Armed Forces in.
Finally, the committee will approve the bill and "report it back" to the entire house, along with an explanation of how they amended the bill (lots of italics and
strikethrough here), what the bill will mean, and why it should be made into law.
If the bill has a broad scope, it will have to pass through this process in several committees. The Appropriations Committee, for instance, has to review any bill that will draw funding from the United States federal budget, which means that its jurisdiction overlaps with almost every other bill that Congress passes. When more than one committee is involved, the bill either passes through the committees in a prescribed sequence, or it hits all the relevant committees at the same time, with the opposing points worked out later by a select committee.
3. The bill is deliberated by the entire house
In the House of Representatives, there is a sophisticated calendar system that organizes all the bills on the table into fixed debate times. Again, the Rules Committee gets to make these decisions. Individual representatives can apply for debate time, and are given a certain number of minutes to state their own case, which they often yield to other members who want to speak out. Once the debate is over, the bill is voted upon electronically.
The Senate doesn't have this sort of structure: they just take bills as they come, and can debate them for whatever length of time they can stay awake for (this is how they have filibusters). When the Senate agrees that they've finished debating, they take a voice vote, and if the voice vote is not decisive, they take a real vote. Incidentally, the desk next to the Senate's ballot box is called the "candy desk", and whichever Senator occupies it is expected to keep it stocked with candy so that the Senators can have a treat after they vote. No, I am not making this up.
Once the bill passes through one house of Congress, it has to pass through the other house. In the same clunky process.
5. The bills go to conference
At the end of this process, assuming the bill has survived its trip through both houses of Congress, it will exist in a House version and a Senate version. These two versions are almost never identical, so the House and Senate both appoint delegates to a temporary conference committee, which blends the two versions together until they satisfy the wants of both houses.
This bill must then be approved separately by both the House and Senate. If one or both houses vote it down, it goes back to the conference committee. Once both houses approve it, it is printed up on parchment, signed by the Speaker of the House and Vice President of the United States, and sent up Pennsylvania Avenue to the waiting fountain pen of George W. Bush.
6. The President approves the bill
Once the bill is sent to the President, Congress gets a receipt from the White House. The President gets 10 days from the date of this receipt (Sundays not counted) to review the bill and either sign or veto it. If he does nothing within this time frame, the bill automatically becomes law.
If he signs the bill into law, he will do so at a big ceremony attended by many members of the Washington elite. Usually, the President will use a different fountain pen for each letter of his name, so he can give many of his friends in Congress "'the' pen that signed the Homeland Security Act" for their collection.
If he vetoes the bill, it is sent back to Congress, along with an explanation of the veto. The only way to save the bill over the President's veto is by a two-thirds majority vote of both houses of Congress.
7. The newborn law is placed in the Federal Register, and eventually the United States Code
Once it is offically on the books, the bill is now a law, and you can get arrested for not following it.
By now, you're probably thinking, "How does Congress manage to pass bills at all with all this red tape?!" Well, the red tape is designed to ensure that Congress carefully thinks through every decision that it makes. The President can sign and institute an executive order in a matter of minutes, but a permanent law, written in black and white, has to be more conservative in nature.