Most people have seen the Schoolhouse Rock! musical “I’m Just a Bill” which does a great, and entertaining, job of explaining the basics of how a bill becomes a law. The animation takes you through the main legislative processes, and will likely leave the watcher with a tune stuck in their head for days.
This post focuses on the federal process of a bill becoming a law, but state level legislative processes follow similar patterns. Every law starts as a bill, works its way through congressional committees and debates, gets voted on by both houses of Congress, and then finally reaches the President. This post will discuss these steps in greater detail below, from the creation of the bill until it becomes a law.
Congress is made up of two Chambers, the House and the Senate. The House has 435 representatives, and the Senate has 100 senators. Because of the large number of representatives, the House elects a Speaker who makes sure that the proper procedures are followed, and debates about bills are limited. The Senate does not have a Speaker, but whoever is the current vice president serves as the president of the Senate, presides over the daily proceedings of the Senate, and can cast a tie-breaking vote.
In both the House and the Senate, the majority leaders are in charge of the day-to-day schedules for the chamber floors. This means that the majority party controls which bills are considered, how much time members get to debate the bills, and when the voting on the bills take place. The majority party has a lot of control over what bills are considered by Congress and the speed at which bills are pushed through the legislative process. To view the current House leadership, click here. To view current Senate leadership, click here.
Introducing a Bill
Bills can be written by anyone, not just a member of Congress. In fact, both the House and the Senate have their own legislative counsels who draft legislation for congressional members and committees. While anyone can draft bills, only a member of Congress can introduce the bill to the House or Senate. The member who introduced the bill is its primary sponsor, but bills can have multiple sponsors or cosponsors. Sponsors are responsible for championing the bills to make it all the way through the legislative process to become law. A bill can be introduced in either the House or the Senate by a Representative or a Senator and goes through a very similar process no matter where it started.
Once a bill is introduced, it only has until the end of a legislative session to complete the entire process, otherwise, it must be reintroduced during the next legislative session. Congressional sessions typically last two years. Currently, it is the 117th Congress and will be until 2023. At the state level, legislative sessions vary. For example, the Texas Legislature is only in session during odd-numbered years. Massachusetts, on the other hand, has a full-time legislature that meets year-round.
After a bill is introduced, it is then assigned to a committee depending on its topic. For example, bills concerning agriculture are generally sent to the House Agriculture Committee or the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry. Committees are an important part of the legislative process because they help prioritize the thousands of bills introduced to Congress each congressional session. Committees are made up of congressional members who are assigned to specific committees. Assignments are based on a variety of factors, including a congressperson’s interests and the committee’s requirements. The House has 20 permanent committees, also called standing committees, and the Senate has 16. In addition, each committee can have subcommittees, which are made up of committee members.
Bills sent to a committee are researched and discussed by the committee members. Committee members can also make changes to the bills before voting on them. Making changes while in committee is referred to as “marking-up” a bill. The bill can also be sent to subcommittees within the committee for further review, which will conduct research and hearings of its own before going back before the committee. Most bills are discussed at committee hearings that are open to the general public. At federal hearings, testimony is given by witnesses invited by committee staff and witnesses generally have different views the bill. These federal witnesses come from diverse backgrounds and can consist of individuals who represent different levels of government, academics, businesses, interest groups, and other private citizens. States differ slightly and generally allow citizens to sign up to give testimony at public committee hearings as long as the state legislature’s guidelines are followed. These legislative guidelines vary from state-to-state and also from the house to the senate. It is important to review individual state procedures for signing up as a witness to give testimony, most can be found on the state’s house or senate website.
A bill needs to make it out of committee before it can come before all of the members of the House or the Senate. For that to happen, committee members must vote on whether to advance a bill on to the full Chamber. It is fairly common for bills to “die” in committee, which means that they are never voted on by the committee and never make it to the House or Senate floor for debate.
If a bill is successfully voted out of a committee, it will be taken up by the House or Senate, depending on where it was introduced. The entire House or Senate will then have the opportunity to debate the bill and propose amendments. Once all changes have been made, the House or Senate will then vote on the bill. The Senate can take a roll-call vote. During a roll-call vote, each congressperson’s name is read off one by one, at which point they must vote “yea” or “nay.” Their votes are recorded and then counted. Generally, a majority is all that is required for a bill to pass. The Constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote in certain circumstances, like adopting constitutional amendments.
When a roll-call vote is not used, the Senate can use a voice vote where all senators say yea or nay at the same time, and the majority wins. The House can also use voice votes for passing bills, as well as division and recorded voting methods. Division voting requires representatives who support and oppose the bill to stand and be counted. The House normally uses an electronic voting system that allows representatives to vote. If the majority of the House votes in favor of a bill, it passes.
Once a bill has passed through either the House or the Senate, it is then sent to the other Chamber to repeat the process all over again. For example, the Cattle Contract Library Act of 2021 passed the House and was sent to the Senate in December 2021. The Senate has since sent it to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. If the Senate passes the bill, it is sent back to the House. If the Senate made changes, the House must vote on the bill again, and the bill could be sent back to a House committee if needed. Before a bill can become law, identical versions must pass through both the House and the Senate.
Bills that have passed both the House and the Senate are considered enrolled. Once a bill has been enrolled, it is sent to the President. When an enrolled bill reaches the President’s desk, the President has three options: pass the bill, veto the bill, or “pocket veto” the bill. If the President signs the bill, it becomes law. If the President does not like the bill and wants to veto it, they can send it back to the Chamber where it was introduced, essentially preventing the bill from becoming law at that time. However, the bill could be reconsidered and still pass. Overriding the veto requires a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and the Senate. In 2008, President George W. Bush vetoed the 2007 Farm Bill, but Congress ended up overriding the veto by achieving a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate. A “pocket veto” occurs when the President does nothing, they do not veto the bill or sign it. When this occurs, the bill becomes law as long as Congress is in session at the end of the ten days that the President has to act on the bill.
Citizens can be a part of the legislative process in several ways. Giving testimony at public committee hearings, mentioned above, is just one of the ways for citizens to become involved. Contacting representatives or senators about bills that are for or against is a common method of participating in the process. Calling, emailing, and sending letters are forms of communications that citizens can use to express their views on bills to their elected officials. For both federal and state bills, citizens can contact the representative or senator who are their elected officials and express their opinions. To find out what members serve specific areas, click here. Check out state government websites to find out who the representatives and senators are in each state.
There are tons of lobbying, or interest, groups across the United States who advocate for and against specific types of legislation depending on what special interest they represent. Lobbying groups represent individuals, corporations, and the public for all types of common interests. For example, the American Farm Bureau Federation advocates for farmers and ranchers across the United States. Citizens can become involved by volunteering or becoming members of interest groups that represent the special interests that they have.
The process that is required for a bill to become a law is lengthy and often complicated. As a result, bills face many obstacles on their way to becoming a law, and the final versions often look very different from the initially introduced version.
For more resources from the National Agricultural Law Center on how the legal system functions, click here.
For an even more in-depth view of the federal legislative process, click here.