Just What is a Bill and How Does it Become a Law?
With all of the excitement that surrounded the first “Bailout bill” and now the furor over the new Stimulus bill I looked through our archives and saw that no one had yet discussed what a bill is and how it becomes a law. The point of this post is purely educational. There are no opinions here regarding the current stimulus package or Geithner’s announcement yesterday that he needs $TWO TRILLION MORE. I’m sorry, was I shouting? In keeping with the main premise of Inside Government – to help educate and inform the public – the following is a detailed look at bills. But, first – a blast from the past for those of you who might remember School House Rock:
Pretty cool, huh? Well, that is a very simplified presentation of how bills become law, but, it is on target and most of you probably remember seeing it. Now we move on to greater detail…
Where do bills come from?
Actually, a bill starts off as an idea, usually coming from the public or from a member of Congress themselves. This idea is set in motion by a written proposal. The proposal is the basis for the bill that outlines just what is in the bill, who the bill benefits, and the anticipated cost of passing the bill into law.
Who writes the bill proposal?
Do you really think that our congressmen/women and senators actually sit behind a desk and write these 600 page bills themselves? Nope – that’s where the congressional aides come in. Our representatives set the wheels in motion by outlining what it is they want to be put in the bill proposals and their aides actually do the initial drafting. The representatives review the drafts and revisions are made until the proposal is final and ready for submission.
A bill has five major sections: 1.) The purpose of the bill, 2.) The body of the bill, 3.) Financing – how much does it cost and where will the money come from, 4.) Penalties for not following the law proposed by this bill, and 5.) An effective date.
Where does the bill proposal go from here?
It goes to the “hopper.” The hopper is literally the “inbox” for the House of Representatives. It is a brown box that sits to the left of the Speaker of the House’s rostrum. For the senate – there isn’t a “hopper.” However, it is given to the bill clerk that is actually seated near the Senate chamber rostrum.
Once a bill proposal has been accepted by the bill clerks they are then given a sequential number. A bill proposed in the House begins with “H.R.” and a bill proposal introduced in the Senate begins with an “S.”
If a bill is introduced at the Senate level it follows very similar steps as does the House bills. There are only subtle differences so I won’t go into separate detail for Senate introduced bills. The end results are the same.
Are there different types of bills?
Yes. There are public bills and private bills. Public bills are those that when passed into law affect the public at large. Private bills are those that when passed into law only affect certain individuals, corporations, businesses, or organizations.
So, what happens next? How do bills become a law?
Okay, that’s jumping the gun a bit. There is still a lot of work to do before a bill can be passed into law. Once a proposal has been submitted, accepted, and numbered, it is referred to committee by the Speaker and the Parliamentarian.
Never heard of the Parliamentarian? Essentially, this is a non-partisan individual in both the Senate and House that acts as an advisor to the Speaker in the House and the Majority leader in the Senate. They help to answer member and staff questions as well as to review bill drafts and provide input. For an in depth look at this position, you can see that here.
Now, back to the bill. The bill is not referred to just any committee. Depending on the intent and purpose of the bill, it is sent to a specific committee of congressional members or senate members for review. For example, agriculture-related bills go to the Agricultural Committee; bills related to the military go to the Military Relations Committee; etc.
Each committee is a non-partisan committee that is comprised of members from each party. Once the bill reaches committee, it is then open to a public hearing. If you are a political geek like I am, you will have seen these public hearings on C-Span. These hearings are literally open to the public for comment regarding the details in the proposed bill. You can also follow all discussions and review all documents submitted to the committee in every hearing held in the House and the Senate by reading the Congressional Record, which is a verbatim transcript of all Congressional speeches, votes, hearings and documents submitted. (You can find a link to the Congressional Record under “Resources” in our sidebar.)
Once the public hearing is over it goes back in to private committee and this is known as the “mark up” phase. This is where the committee members get together and debate the merits of the bill and take the public opinions into consideration. Additional changes and amendments will be made during this session with all of the members voting on it.
Once the committee has completed its review there are a number of things that could happen: 1.) it gets tabled which means the proposal is rejected and it goes no further, 2.) It comes out as a “clean bill” which means it contains some of the original content but has been amended to the point that it is a new bill – and – it receives a new number, and 3.) or it is approved with or without amendments and continues from there.
Okay – so – now the bill passes committee. Is it a law yet?
Nope! We’re just getting started! If the bill is passed on to the House – it actually goes to the government printing office to make copies for all the members of Congress. Now the bill is brought up before the full House for debate. There are those who are for it and those who are against it. In the House there is a set time amount for debate based on the rules set at the beginning of the session. Each side gets an opportunity to voice their opinions and to add amendments. Amendments are voted upon when they are proposed.
After all debate and discussion is concluded the bill goes up for a vote. There are three things that happen here as well: 1.) It gets a vote to “recommit” which means it goes back to committee for further discussion, 2.) It gets voted down and proceeds no further, or 3.) It passes in the House.
Finally! So – now it’s a law?
Nope! Like I said – we’re just getting started. Once the bill passes in the House, it now goes to the Senate for consideration. As with the House, the bill is brought before the full Senate for debate, discussion, and amendments. But, before it is heard, it must pass a unanimous consent vote to even be presented in the Senate. Once approved unanimously, each side is given an opportunity to be heard and to add amendments. Amendments are voted upon as they are introduced.
Often times we hear the term “cloture” when talking about bills up for debate in the Senate. This is a unique Senate term. It sets a specific time limit for debate. Essentially, it is used to stop a filibuster (we’ll talk about that next You can also visit the Inside Government post: What Is a Filibuster?) In order to close debate on a bill, a cloture vote is called for. In order for cloture to pass it needs 3/5ths, or 60 votes, to close it out. In other words, once cloture has been implemented, there are only 30 hours left for debate and then the matter is closed and the bill goes up for a vote.
A filibuster is another Senate unique tool. This is an attempt to block further action in the Senate on any bill through whatever means necessary. Thurmond Strom (SC) holds the record for the longest filibuster in Senate history. In 1957 he talked for 24 hours and 18 minutes non-stop in an attempt to stop the passage of the Civil Rights Act. In order to mount a filibuster you must maintain control of the podium at all times. You cannot stop talking (except to answer questions) and you must remain standing. Can you imagine talking for 24 hours straight?
So, once everything has been done and said and a final vote is cast there are two things that happen: 1.) The bill fails and stops there, it does not pass into law, or 2.) It passes and is now sent back to the House of Representatives.
What? But, it already passed in the House of Representatives!
Yes, but, after going through the Senate process there have been changes made. It would be a rare occasion where both the House bill and the Senate bill were the same. A bill can only be passed if both the House and the Senate versions are identical. So, it gets passed back to the House.
If the House approves of the Senate version, it makes the changes to the House version, gets signed off and then sent back up to the Senate.
Additionally, the House could add another Amendment and that is sent back to the Senate, or they can outright disagree with the Senate version. In both cases, it is sent back to the Senate.
Once the Senate receives the House bill, if the Senate agrees to the House amendment it moves on. If the Senate disagrees with the House amendment, or if the House disagreed with the Senate version representatives from both the House and the Senate go in to a Conference Committee to resolve the differences. A bill is considered passed by conference when there are a majority of conferees from both the House and the Senate that agree to the bill.
Surely, we must be getting close to the end now!
Once the bill has passed the Conference Committee it is sent back to the originating chamber (House or Senate) for enrollment. Enrollment is the process in which the measure (or summary of the bill) is printed on parchment paper and then signed by the Speaker of the House, the Senate Majority Leader, and the Vice President. Now – it goes to the President.
Are we there yet?
Almost! Now that the President has it there are a few options. The President has exactly 10 business days to sign the bill. If the bill is signed within the 10 day period, it becomes a law. The President also has the option of not passing the bill which is called a veto. If he vetoes the bill that does not necessarily mean it does not pass. Remember, our system of government is based on checks and balances. If the bill passes the Senate by a 2/3 majority (67 votes) then even if the President vetoes the bill, it still passes. So, if the President vetoes the bill and there is not a 2/3 majority vote in the Senate the bill dies and does not become law.
The other option is for the President to not sign it all. If the President refuses to sign the bill, if Congress is in session at the time, the bill automatically becomes law. If the President refuses to sign the bill when Congress is not in session, this is called a pocket veto and the bill dies.
So, there you have it! Like I said, that School House Rock cartoon was a great summary , but, getting a bill signed into law is quite a feat! If you’re one of the few that actually made it to the end here, leave us a comment and let us know your thoughts are on this process. And even though we said we wouldn’t talk about the stimulus package, that bill shows every step in the process just described right down to the Conference Committee, but unlike most bills, this one is being rushed through because of the extraordinary circumstances and the immediate effect it will have on our troubled economy.
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