Any Bill to become a law in US needs to go through certain steps in House, Senate, and then goes to President to be signed for becoming a law in US. As we track HR1044, S386 Bills Latest News , it is good to understand the overall process of how a Bill becomes a law in US and risks for the bill that may kill it during the process.
This article covers all the topics like who can introduce bill, how does it travel through both House, Senate, and reach President, including a simple flow chart.
How do Bill ideas come in? Who can Introduce Bill?
Usually ideas for a Bill come from citizens, interest groups, election campaigns. where the members promised something, etc. Anyone can contribute to the text of the bill, but Bills can only be formally introduced by members of Congress, such as a Representative in House or Senator in Senate. Bills can originate in either House or Senate, but needs to be passed with majority in both of them in same form to become law.
Parties involved in passing a Bill – Committees, Subcommittees
To pass a bill to law, it has to go through both House & Senate and then need to be signed by President to become law. Senate has 100 members – 2 per state and House has 435 members – based on population. Both House and Senate has a number of committees and subcommittees. House has 20 standing committees like Budget Committee, Rules Committee, Appropriations Committee. Senate has 16 standing committees like Foreign relations Committee, Armed Services Committees. There can be additional committees in both of them for various other needs.
How does a Bill in US Senate or House Looks Like ? H.R. vs S. Meaning ?
Bills can originate in either House or Senate. They have similar structure. House originated Bills Start with H. R. that means House of Representatives, it is followed by a number that is a serial number. It has basic information on the top on what is the high-level purpose on the top, followed by who is the main person introducing the same with other people supporting the same (called as co-sponsors). After that you see the text of the Bill. Senate originated Bills Start with S. that means Senate and followed by a number and it also has similar structure as House Bill. See below for samples of House Bill and Senate Bill.
Bill Proposal – Gathering Support, Sponsors
Usually during the process of writing a bill or after completion of draft of the bill, the House Representative or Senator, who plans to introduce the bill discusses with other Reps or Senators to get their support and make them as co-sponsors. The more co-sponsors for the bill, the better its chances to go forward in the process to become law.
Now let’s look at the step by step high level process of the Bill that is introduced in House and navigates through the Senate reaches President.
Process of a Bill to Become Law in US Congress – Originating in House
Below are the various steps involved during the process of a Bill that originates in House and goes all the way to get singed by President. For example, this is the case of Bill HR 1044, it was introduced in House first.
- Bill is Introduced in House – Assigned to Committee
Bill can be introduced in the house by putting it into something called Hopper, which is a special wooden box on the side of clerk’s desk.
You need be a representative in the House to introduce the bill in House. The Bill clerk would assign a number to that bill that starts with H.R.. In the past, a reading clerk used to read the bill to all the Reps in the House, but, the reading of bill custom is not there anymore and the bill is sent to respective channels for printing and electronic forms for everyone to review.
The Speaker of the House would refer the bill to one of the House Committees. In the case of HR 1044, it was given to Committee on Judiciary. Once the bill is introduced in House, you can check the bill details on Congress.gov and track its status on that website.
- Process in House Committees, Sub Committees
Committees actions define the fate of a bill. Committees also give an option for public to express their opinion, experts opinions, etc. Once a Bill is assigned to a committee, the bill clerk assigns it to committees’ legislative calendar. Depending on the topic of Bill and details required, it will be assigned to subcommittee. In HR 1044 bill case, it was assigned to subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship.
The subcommittee looks at the bill, gets expert opinion as needed, holds hearings and debates the topics in the same. If the subcommittee is not interested or there is not enough support for the bill, they can table the bill (meaning the bill is put aside and technically dead at that time). If the subcommittee is convinced, they come up with recommendations to the main committee that assigned them the Bill.
After the recommendations, the Bill is heard, debated as needed and then voted on the same. It can be tabled in Committee level ( put aside, and bill is dead ) as well. To come out of that tabled situation at committee level, it needs a ‘discharge petition’ that needs majority vote of 51% of 435 reps to sign for it to come out of committee and debated on House floor.
If approved in main committee, it goes to Rules Committee to decide that decides the rules of debate and how it should be handled in full House.
- Introduction to House Floor – Debate , Voted, Engrossed Bill
Once a Bill approved in committee, it goes on to one of the calendars in the house. Being part of calendar does not mean it gets option to debate. You can think of calendar as a menu, where the majority party gets to choose the order, unless it falls under something called Consensus Calendar, where bill that have at least 290 cosponsors for 25 days, like HR 1044 Bill. If it is part of Consensus calendar, then at least one of the items in that should be picked per week.
Once the Bill comes on the floor, the bill is read, debated and amendments are made, if any. The requested amendments should be related to the Bill ( also called as germane amendments ). The debate duration for the Bill is usually set ahead of time and usually passed as a simple resolution.
After closing the debate, and all the changes are done, it is ready to be voted on by the entire House. It can be done either voice vote or by electronic voting. If voice vote, the Reps say Aye ( Yes), No or Present( meaning, choosing not to vote). If the reps request electronic recording of the vote, then they can vote using electronic voting machine. To vote, the reps insert their encrypted electronic voting card and then pressing buttons YEA, NAY or PRE like in below image to record their vote.
If the Bill gets simple majority vote ( 215 out of 435), it will be considered passed in the House. For certain Bills like Federal income tax rate increase, they require 3/5th of majority in the house (261 out of 435 ) and some require 2/3rd Majority ( 290 out of 435). Once the bill is passed in House, the Enrolling Clerk prepares the Engrossed Bill (basically the final certified copy with all the changes that were agreed by House members and certified by the House clerk for accuracy). The engrossed bill is printed on blue paper and signed by the clerk of the House and delivered to the Senate for next steps.
- Bill Introduced in Senate – Assigned to Committee
The engrossed Bill arrives in Senate and similar to House, when a Bill arrives in US Senate, it is read by the Clerk in the Senate and then the President of the Senate ( Vice President of US ) or acting person on behalf refers the engrossed bill from House to the appropriate committee in the Senate. For instance, in case of HR 1044 it was assigned to Judiciary Committee in Senate.
- Process in Senate Committees, Sub Committees
The process in Senate Committees is similar to that of House. The bill clerk would assign the Bill to the committee’s legislative calendar. Also, similar to House, depending on the type of Bill, the main committee would either take it up or assign to a subcommittee.
The Bill goes through more or less same process in subcommittee like getting expert opinion, holding hearings, debates on the same. Same as in House, if the committee or subcommittee is not interested or there is not enough support at any point, the bill can be tabled as well (meaning the bill is put aside and technically dead at that time). Once the assigned committee agrees on the bill, they vote on the same and if it passes, then it goes to the Senate Floor. The process of going through the bill, debating it, modifying it and then ultimately voting it is termed as ‘markup’.
- Introduction to Senate Floor – Debate , Filibusters, Vote
Once the Bill arrives in the Senate floor, it goes through debate. Senate is very famous for its debates. It is important to end a debate in Senate to go for voting. The key point to end a debate is, you need an Unanimous Consent(UC) to end the debate (meaning everyone in the Senate floor should agree to end the debate and let the bill go for voting).
Now, the trick is, if a senator or group of senators do not like the bill or they do not want to vote for it, they will not give their consent and will not let the bill go for voting. This point of not giving consent is called “a hold”. Basically, what they are saying by not giving consent is that they want to continue debating on the same Bill. This situation for endless debate is called Filibuster.
To get out of this hold situation or Filibuster, you will need about 60 votes majority to use a process called Cloture (closure of the debate). So, technically, anyone who wants to block the Bill from passing can put brakes on the Bill, if there is not enough support in the Senate, which is 60 votes. Even though, you need a simple majority of 51 to pass a Bill, because of the concept of Filibuster, the bill can be killed by anyone, if there are less than 60 senators supporting the Bill.
Also, unlike in House, for amendments in the bill, they need not be related to the Bill ( need not be Germane). The Senators can add changes that may not be directly related to the Bill, such changes are called riders. This is also another tactic to kill the Bill or compromise and get their areas of interest to be included in the Bill. Let’s say the debate ends and the bill is voted and gets passed by majority vote, then the Bill is engrossed by Senate and sent back to the House. Senators vote by voice by saying ‘Yea’ or ‘Nay’.
- If Same Bill Text is NOT passed – Conference Committee
The key requirement for a Bill to go to President for signature is that the Bill should be voted and passed in the same exact form and text. During the above process of Bill moving from House to Senate, if there are any new changes/amendments done to the Bill in Senate, then it again needs to go to House for voting.
To reconcile the differences in the Bills that were passed in Senate and House, often a Conference Committee is appointed that has members from both Senate and House. Senators and House of Representatives related to the Bill discuss and try to resolve their differences and need to come to an agreement, so that the modified one Bill can be accepted by both Senate and House.
The final agreed bill by Conference committee is again sent to House and Senate for voting. If it passes the vote in both Senate and House, then it goes to President. The final copy of the bill that is passed in both chambers is called “Enrolled Bill”
- President – Can Sign the Bill or Veto the Bill
After the final version of Bill is passed in both House and Senate, the ‘enrolled bill’ ( final copy of Bill passed in House and Senate) arrives to President of United States desk for signature. The President can choose to sign the bill or veto the bill. If the bill is signed by president, the bill become law. But, if the president does not agree or like the bill in its form, he or she can refuse to sign or Veto the Bill.
If the president vetoes the Bill, it is sent back to the House with reason for veto. If the Senate and House believes that they do not want to change anything in Bill, they can override the veto of President by 2/3rds of majority vote in House and Senate, then the same bill automatically becomes law.
Also, another option for president is to do nothing. Also, there is something called pocket veto concept, where president does not do anything. If the president does not sign for 10 days, and the Congress is in session, then it automatically becomes law. But, the tricky part is, if the Congress is not in session for all 10 days, then the bill will die.
- Bill becomes Law – Gets a Number, Implementation
If in the bill becomes law in any of the above ways, like either signed by President, or vetoed and overridden, or exhaust 10 days and becomes law automatically, it will get a public law number. For instance, for 113th congress, it would be Public Law 113-1. The official publication of the Bill that became law is published by the office of the Federal Register. Once the bill becomes law, it is enforced by the respective Government agency that handles the same.
How Bill Becomes Law – Step by Step Flow Chart
The process of the Bill originating or starting in Senate goes to pretty much the same process as described above. Just the order changes. Below is a high-level summary of the same steps.
Process of a Bill to Become Law – Originating in Senate
Step 1 : Bill is Introduced in Senate – Assigned to Committee
Bill is prepared similar to the same way in Senate and it will have a sponsor. The Senate Parliamentarian (Vice President or person in charge) will assign it to the committee that is relevant to the Bill. In the case of S 386, it was given to Committee on Judiciary.
Step 2 : Process in Senate Committees, Sub Committees
Similar to the process in House, Committees actions define the fate of a bill. The Senate bill is put on calendar, assigned to subcommittee as needed. It goes through expert opinions, etc. and the overall process of ‘markup’, where the bill is debated, modified and then ultimately voted. If the committee members vote favorably, then it goes to Senate floor.
Step 3 : Introduction to Senate Floor – Debate , Voted, Engrossed Bill
Once a Bill approved in committee, it goes on to Senate floor for voting. The Majority leader of the Senate decides when to bring up the Bill for vote. It goes to debate and needs Unanimous consent to go for voting. If someone tries to hold the bill and not give consent ( filibuster), then it needs 60 votes to come out of hold called as Cloture vote. Finally, once voting happens and if Bill passes it goes to the House after the bill is Engrossed by the clerk.
Step 4 : Bill Introduced in House – Assigned to Committee
The engrossed Bill arrives in House and goes through similar process as listed above and a committee is assigned by Speaker.
Step 5: Process in House Committees, Sub Committees
As described above, the bill goes through the committees & subcommittees for opinion, debates, voting and ultimately goes to the House Floor, if everyone agrees. It goes through rules committee for how it should be handled on floor
Step 6 : Introduction to House Floor – Debate, Vote
The Bill in introduced in House, goes through debate and then voting. The same process described above in House apply here.
Step 7 : If Same Bill Text is NOT passed – Conference Committee
Similar to above, same bill has to be passed in both House and Senate. If different, it needs to be resolved in the Conference Committee and then it goes for final voting. The final agreed bill by Conference committee is again sent to House and Senate for voting. If it passes the vote in both Senate and House, then it goes to President.
Step 8 : President – Can Sign the Bill or Veto the Bill
After the final version of Bill is passed in both House and Senate, it arrives to President of United States desk for signature. The same process of president signature and Veto apply here as well. If signed or fits other requirements, it becomes Law.
Step 9 : Bill becomes Law – Gets a Number, Implementation.
Same as above, the bill gets a number and published in respective places. Once the bill becomes law, it is enforced by the respective Government agency that handles the same.
This was a good explanation of the process. Thank you. My question pertains to #3 and #6 (introduction to House floor & introduction to Senate floor) . If House amendments have to be related to the main topic does that not lend itself to widespread interpretation of what’s pertinent? If amendments in the Senate can be unrelated, why do we allow this and why cannot this system be changed.
Valid point…Frankly, I also do not know. It is how the constitution was written. My guess is, House is more coming from grass roots and need to have topics related, but unlike Senate is top down, so they may want to have exceptions option that are not related as there could be many unrelated topics that needs to pass or be compromised…Again, this does not make sense logically, but just my guess 🙂