Note: 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. 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.

4. Repeat

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.

I was asked by a noder here to elaborate on some nodes with a challenge to explain how a bill becomes law.

The writeup above is the "naive, how they tell you it works in school" version of the process. But as we know, it's more complex than that.

In reality:

  • A bill is drafted by members of Congress, the Executive Branch or an outside group and a Representative introduces it in the House.
  • Occasionally some naive citizen or citizen's group thinks that something would be a good idea. Those are the bills that go to committee to die in step two.

    But really, it's usually a special interest group, corporation or other group that wants something, so they get one of their paid lackeys like a Congress-critter to draft some great sounding thing. If it comes from the President you know it's part of a Grand Plan that means we're all going to get assrailed without lubricant.

  • The Speaker of the House sends the bill to a committee. If it passes, it goes to Rules Committee, which decides the rules for and timing of debate.
  • This is where the bills from actual real people or the boy scout types who went to Washington to not be like other politicians and believes in the system quietly get thrown in the garbage while the real power brokers have a good laugh at the naivete. Then on to the real business. Person X has proposed a law on behalf of a corporation, so they look to see how either to add their own special interest language to it, or oppose it if they oppose the special interest in question.

    Then comes the quiet power jockeying to get it past the Rules Committee, who will figure out how to game the system (e.g. there will be five minutes to read all 1500 pages of legalese, then 15 minutes for everyone to discuss it...)

  • House debates the bill. If a majority votes in favor, it goes to the Senate.
  • This is the first degree of politicking about it. That's when you hear about it in the news. Say for example that the original bill was drafted by a citizen group called "We Moms" who want the ability to treat dying children with cannabis extract. The left wing will be crying about the children, what about the children - while the right wing plays the "sanctity of all life" card but cautions about how cannabis is in the same class as heroin for a reason and we need much more research. Like 40 years' worth. Because the slippery slope, next thing is crazed stoners who got a prescription for it for "a slight cough" are raping, pillaging and destroying the fabric of the country.

    This is when both sides take polls.

  • A Senator introduces the bill, which is sent to a committee. If the committee majority votes for the bill, it goes to the whole Senate.
  • This is where the real politicking begins. Sometimes a Democrat Congress will attempt to assrail a Republican senate by writing a great bill that their special interests oppose, so they look like total jerks to the public in the next election cycle. Or a Republican Congress would really like to get something done, and the Democrats get the chance to smile and say "no soup for you."

  • Majority floor leader decides when the whole Senate will consider the bill.
  • Note that this includes 20 years from now and never.

  • The Bill is debated and potentially amended. If a majority votes in favor, it is returned to the House. If the House rejects any changes, it goes to a conference committee of members from both houses for compromise. Both houses must approve these changes. If approved, the bill goes to the president.
  • At this point in the process, one of three things happen.

    It all depends what the bill is for. Say that the powers that be want us all microchipped and under constant 24/7 GPS surveillance. That is NOT how the bill will start. It will start out as the Defend America with Mom And Apple Pie with fluffy kittens bill, and will be enthusiastically fast tracked by both sides. It will call for an increase in funding for veterans and remove soldiers from foreign wars to defend here instead. In the Senate is where the bit about veterans gets quietly emasculated, the bit about foreign wars has language added to say "eventually" and in the 20,000 pages it grows by the part about microchipping, surveillance, an abrogation of the fourth amendment and so forth gets quietly tucked in between long boring legal words that at one point tried to say "help the veterans" but now says the opposite.

    Or, it could be that the cannabis bill from before is more popular than people think, and Senators are getting quiet calls from Big Pharma saying nope, cut it out. So what they do is add scope and amendment to make the bill politically unpopular. Absolutely, the 75 kids whose lives are saved by this would be helped, but at a cost of 1.5 billion because the bill also now contains sensible provisions like warning labels on cannabis in Portugese, long red tape, and millions of dollars in funding for anti-drug campaigns, as well as authorizing the release of untreated medical waste into our rivers, and that every child with autism gets 100% of their medical treatment completely free on the public dime.* The news gets tipped about the medical waste, and feel like heroes for Letting You Know What Our Congress People Were Up To. Oppose the medical waste dumping law.

    Or it's the usual collusion between both parties to simply make money. All of it is quiet jockeying to make sure that enough major players get tax breaks, pork or other goodies to make the law pass.

  • The president may sign (approve) the bill or veto (reject) it. If approved, it becomes law.
  • How this goes depends on the eventual re-election campaign.




    *The autism part of that sentence actually happened in the state of Georgia.


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