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Study Notes

Legislative Process (US)

AQA, Edexcel, OCR

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

A bill must pass through the legislative process in order to become a law. It has several hurdles to overcome before it can be signed into law. Below is the written explanation for the Legislative Process.

The Process:

Bills pass through the legislative process concurrently, meaning they pass through the House of Representatives and the Senate at the same time. Despite this concurrent passage there are some differences in the process between the House and the Senate.

1. First Reading

The bill is introduced in either chamber by a Representative or Senator. They will now become the sponsor of the bill. In the first reading the name of the bill is read out and a quick vote is taken to see if it will proceed. This is a mere formality and most bills pass this stage.

2. The Committee Stage

Once a bill has passed the first reading it will be allocated to a committee. Once it had been allocated, it is the choice of the committee which bills they choose to hear. If a bill isn't chosen to be heard, it is known as pigeonholing. This happens to many bills. However, if a committee chooses to hear a bill then it will hold hearings and investigations to see what the effect of a bill would be. It is in these sessions that people will have the chance to air their views on the bill.

The bill will then proceed to be ‘marked up’, it is here that amendments are added. If a bill has been passed to a subcommittee, then at this stage the bill will come back to the full committee. If the committee backs the bill they will ‘order the bill to be reported’, or report the bill out of committee. Many bills will still die in committee even after being marked up.

3. Timetabling

Once reported out of committee it enters the timetabling stage. This is done differently in each house.

  • House of Representatives:
    • Bills are given to the House Rules Committee which will decide on whether or not the bill will make it to the floor, how long they will be debated for and whether or not amendments can be added.
  • Senate:
    • Bills are agreed through unanimous consent agreements. This means that the Senate Leadership will agree on which bills make it to the floor.

If a bill is scheduled in one house and not the other, the bill will die.

4. Second Reading

In both chambers, the bill will be debated and where allowed, amendments added. It is at this stage in the Senate that the bill may be filibustered . All debates are followed by a vote. If the bill doesn’t pass it dies.

5. Third Reading

This is the final opportunity to debate the bill before a final vote. The debate will tend to be small and non-controversial.

6. Reconciling

Since the bills have passed through Congress concurrently, it will result in two different versions of the same bill. A conference committee is called to reconcile the two bills and create a single text. This typically happens with around 10% of bills. In other cases Congressional Leadership will reconcile the bill. Once reconciled, using either method, the bill must go before one final vote before it can be sent onwards. If the bill fails to pass in one chamber, the bill will die.

7. Presidential Action

Once a bill has gone through all the stages it reaches the desk of the President. Here the President is faced with three options.

A President may sign the bill into law, which would be accompanied by a signing ceremony.

The bill may be ‘left on the desk’, meaning it becomes law after 10 days anyway. If Congress were to adjourn before this 10 day period was up, the bill dies, this is known as ‘pocket veto’

The bill may also be vetoed. Once this happens the bill is sent back to Congress, who must vote with two thirds majorities in each house to ensure it becomes law. This is known as a veto override.

Who Proposes Bills?

Bills can be proposed by any Member of Congress, either in the Senate or the House. The content of the bill could be written by lobbyists, the Executive Branch, or Congressmen themselves, but it must find a sponsor in order to be introduced.

The Executive Branch will often write bills that fit with the President’s agenda. It will then find Congressmen who are in the President’s party to introduce them into Congress.

Find out more

'I'm just a bill' - Schoolhouse Rock

See bills before Congress

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