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Congressional Lawmaking: How a bill becomes a law

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U.S. Capitol. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Legislating in the U.S. Congress is a complicated process, oftentimes involving several twists and turns before a bill officially becomes supreme law of the land. 

The first step of lawmaking in Congress is for a member in either the Senate or the House of Representatives to introduce a bill. The bill is then referred to appropriate committees by the speaker of the House or the Senate’s presiding officer or majority leader. A time limit may be placed on the committees to work on the legislation. 

Elected officials get ideas for bills through lobbying. Lobbies are special interests that impact legislation about their causes. Lobbyists influence bills by convincing elected officials to either kill a potential bill that doesn’t align with their interest, or persuade officials to modify a bill to their benefit. 

The bill is given a number, which is attached to either the letters ‘S’ (for Senate) or ‘HR’ (for House of Representatives) to signify the chamber of origin.

The majority of work on a bill is done while it’s in committee. Committee chairmen decide whether to hold a public hearing to get opinions on proposed legislation from relevant officials or agencies. The chairman and members of a committee then begin the process of markup, which allows for debate, amendments or rewrites of a bill. 

Following the markup process, the bill is voted on by committee members for it to leave the committee for a floor vote. If the committee does not vote it out, the bill dies. 

When the bill is presented to a chamber, the speaker of the House or the Senate majority leader decide when it will be presented to the respective chambers to be debated and amended. Bills’ amendment processes differ between the chambers. 

In the House, a representative can only make an amendment to a piece of legislation by getting permission from the rules committee — the committee that sets parameters for floor procedures in the chamber.

But in the Senate, any member can make an amendment proposal without permission, as long as the changes are relevant to the content of the bill. A majority vote is needed for any amendment to be added to the bill. 

After debate, the chamber will hold a majority vote to pass the bill to the other chamber, where the process repeats. If a majority of the chamber does not vote to approve a bill, it dies and will not change hands to the other chamber. 

Often, chambers will pass slightly different versions of a bill. If there are multiple or significant differences, the chambers meet in committee to reconcile the inconsistencies. If a compromise is made, then a conference report is written up. If there is no compromise, then the bill dies. The conference report goes up for a vote in each chamber. If it doesn’t pass in both chambers, the bill dies. 

After the conference report, the bill is sent to the president’s desk for approval. If approved, the bill becomes a law. 

If Congress is in session and the president does not sign the bill within 10 days, the bill becomes a law. A pocket veto may occur if the president takes no action on a bill and Congress adjourns its session. 

If the president vetoes a bill, Congress may overturn the decision with a two-thirds vote in both chambers, but this is quite rare.

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