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The Legislative Process

"All Legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives."

Article I, Section 1, of the United States Constitution 

 

The chief function of Congress is the making of laws.  The legislative process comprises a number of steps, and this page provides information concerning legislation introduced and considered in Congress.  

A much more in-depth discussion and presentation of the overall legislative process are available in the Library of Congress’s How Our Laws are Made and Enactment of a Law.  

The legislative process in a nutshell:

  • First, a Representative sponsors a bill. 
  • The bill is then assigned to a committee for study. 
  • If released by the committee, the bill is put on a calendar to be voted on, debated or amended. 
  • If the bill passes by simple majority (218 of 435), the bill moves to the Senate. 
  • In the Senate, the bill is assigned to another committee and, if released, debated and voted on. 
  • If the Senate makes changes, the bill must return to the House for concurrence.  
  • The resulting bill returns to the House and Senate for final approval. 
  • The President then has 10 days to veto the final bill or sign it into law.

INTRODUCTION AND REFERRAL TO COMMITTEE

Any Member in the House of Representatives may introduce a bill at any time while the House is in session by simply placing it in the “hopper” at the side of the Clerk's desk in the House Chamber. The sponsor's signature must appear on the bill, which may have an unlimited number of cosponsoring Members. The bill is assigned its legislative number by the Clerk and referred to the committee of jurisdiction, which is the committee charged with review of the bill.

COMMITTEE HEARINGS AND REPORTS

The House of Representatives divides its work among over twenty permanent committees.  After a bill is introduced and referred to the committee of jurisdiction, the committee will often send the measure to its specialized subcommittee(s) for study, hearings, revisions, and approval.

Usually, the first step in this process is a public hearing where the committee or subcommittee members hear witnesses representing various viewpoints on the measure.  After hearings are completed, the bill is considered in a session that is popularly known as the “mark-up” session.  At this point, amendments may be offered to the bill, and the committee or subcommittee Members vote to accept or reject these changes.  At the conclusion of deliberation, a vote of committee or subcommittee Members is taken to determine what action to take on the measure. It can be reported, with or without amendment, or tabled, which means no further action on it will occur.  Tabling effectively “kills” the measure.  If the committee has approved extensive amendments, they may decide to report a new bill incorporating all the amendments. This is known as a “clean bill,” which will have a new number.

A measure is ready for consideration by the full House after it has been reported by a committee.

DEBATE AND VOTE ON THE HOUSE FLOOR

Consideration of a measure by the full House can be a simple or very complex operation.  Sometimes, consideration may be governed by a “rule.”  A rule is itself a simple resolution, which must be passed by the House and that sets out the particular rules of debate for a specific bill (i.e. how much time will be allowed for debate, whether amendments can be offered, and other matters).

Debate time for a measure is normally divided between proponents and opponents. Each side yields time to those Members who wish to speak on the bill.  When amendments are offered, these are also debated and voted upon.  After all debate is concluded and amendments decided upon, the House votes on final passage.

In some cases, a vote to “recommit” the bill to committee is requested. This is usually an effort by opponents to change some portion or table the measure. If the attempt to recommit fails, a vote on final passage is ordered.

Votes may be taken by the electronic voting system, which registers each individual Member's response. These are referred to as recorded votes, and are available in the record of roll call votes.  Votes in the House may also be by voice vote; in that instance, no record of individual responses is available. 

SENATE ACTION

After a measure passes in the House, it goes to the Senate for consideration.  This includes consideration by a Senate committee or subcommittee, similar to the path of a bill in the House.  A bill must pass both bodies in the same form before it can be presented to the President for signature into law.

RESOLVING DIFFERENCES

If the Senate changes the language of the measure, it must return to the House for concurrence or additional changes.  This back-and-forth negotiation may occur on the House floor, with the House accepting or rejecting Senate amendments or complete Senate text.

Often, a conference committee will be appointed with both House and Senate Members.  This group will resolve the differences in committee and report the identical measure back to both bodies for a vote. Conference committees also issue reports outlining the final version of the measure.

CONSIDERATION BY THE PRESIDENT

After a measure has been passed in identical form by both the House and Senate, it is considered “enrolled.”  The enrolled bill is sent to the President who may sign the measure into law, veto it and return it to Congress, let it become law without signature, or at the end of a session, pocket-veto it.

OTHER RESOURCES

Additional material explaining the rules and precedents of the House are available through the Democratic Office of the House Rules Committee.

Legislative Resources

On the Floor

Find a Bill

Guide to Legislative Votes