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Constitutional Topic: How a Bill Becomes a Law

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The Constitutional Topics pages at the USConstitution.net site are presented to delve deeper into topics than can be provided on the Glossary Page or in the FAQ pages. This Topic Page concerns Laws - or, more specifically, how a bill becomes a law. The general process is described in the Constitution in Article 1, Section 7.

This page is a concise overview of the entire process and though it does go into some detail, there are many it leaves out. For an exhaustive read of the full legislative process, see How Our Laws Are Made, a publication of the Library of Congress.


The general process for making a bill into a law is described in the Constitution. As with many things, however, the Constitution leaves most of the details to the people of the day, dictating just the overall picture. Before we delve into those details, however, a look at the general process is useful.

First, a bill must pass both houses of Congress by a majority vote. After it has passed out of Congress, it is sent along to the President. If the President signs the bill, it becomes law.

The President might not sign the bill, however. If he specifically rejects the bill, called a veto, the bill returns to Congress. There it is voted on again, and if both houses of Congress pass the bill again, but this time by a two-thirds majority, then the bill becomes law without the President's signature. This is called "overriding a veto," and is difficult to do because of the two-thirds majority requirement.

Alternately, the President can sit on the bill, taking no action on it at all. If the President takes no action at all, and ten days passes (not including Sundays), the bill becomes law without the President's signature. However, if the Congress has adjourned before the ten days passes and without a Presidential signature, the bill fails. This is known as a pocket veto.


The process laid out in the Constitution is relatively complicated when it comes to vetoes, but pretty simple when it comes to approving a bill. But in reality, there is a lot more to law making than these steps spelled out in a clause of the Constitution.

Submitting a Bill

Bills originate from several different sources, but primarily from individual members of Congress. In addition, bills might be brought to a member by a constituent or by a group of constituents; a bill can be submitted to a member of Congress by one or more state legislatures; or the President or his administration might suggest a bill.

However it is brought to the attention of a member, it must be submitted for consideration by the member. In the House, Representatives need merely drop a copy of a bill into a bin specifically placed to receive new bills. In the Senate, the bill is given to a clerk at the President's desk.

Bills can be introduced in either house, though as noted above, a bill must eventually pass both houses to become law. The exception to this is that bills for raising revenue must originate in the House, and never in the Senate.

Committees

Both houses of Congress, the House and the Senate, are divided into large groups called Committees, with most committees divided yet again into Subcommittees. Each Committee tends to a general topic in the nation's business, like Finance or the Military. Subcommittees are even more specialized, with one on, for example, Military Nuclear Weapons, and another on Military Pay.

Bills typically concern a specific topic, like raising the pay of soldiers. Most will, then, fall into a specific sub-committee's area of responsibility. There is a Subcommittee on Pay, Promotion, and Retirement that would consider the pay bill. Once a bill is introduced, it is assigned to a committee. A bill is scheduled to have hearings, at which time witnesses may be called to testify as to why a bill is needed, and sub-committee members ask questions of the witnesses to determine the need or validity of the bill. Once the hearings are held, the members of the subcommittee will then vote on the bill to see if it should proceed further, on to the full committee. If the vote fails, then the bill dies.

Some bills are broad enough to warrant direct consideration by the full committee itself. These types of bills, and bills that are referred to the full committee by a subcommittee, are debated in the committee, which might call witnesses, too. Finally, a vote on the bill is taken at the committee level. If the bill is defeated in the committee vote, it dies. If it passes, a committee report is attached to the bill and it is sent to the full house.

House Procedure

In the House, a bill approved by a committee is referred to the whole House. Most are then referred to the so-called Committee of the Whole, which consists of all members of the House, but with a much lower quorum requirement. Once in the Committee of the Whole, it is read and debated upon. During this general debate, time is allotted for debate, with equal amounts of that time given to the two main parties in the House. When the time for debate is up, a second reading is done. After the second reading, amendments to the bill may be offered, debated upon, and voted upon. Once the Committee of the Whole is done with the bill, it is referred back to the full House. Note that a bill cannot be killed in the Committee of the Whole, although amendments may be placed on the bill that make it undesirable. This is often known as a "poison pill.".

Once in the hands of the full House, the amendments placed on the bill by the Committee of the Whole are voted upon - they can be voted upon en masse or one at a time. After that, one of two votes can happen - either a vote to recommit (which can send the bill back to committee if approved), or a vote on the bill, as amended. If a recommit vote fails, a full vote is taken.

If a bill passes, it is organized and published. The House uses blue paper for approved bills.

Senate Procedure

After a Senate committee refers a bill to the full Senate, it can take one of two main roads. In some cases, with emergency or other non-controversial bills, a simple voice vote is taken of the Senate, and the bill either passes or fails. Amendment is possible even when the simple voice vote can be used. If consent for a voice vote is not available, the bill is placed on the calendar for review by the entire Senate at a later date.

When the bill's time comes up, objection can be noted. If no objection is noted, each Senator has five minutes to speak on the bill. During this time, amendments may be offered. If objection was offered, then each Senator has the opportunity to speak on the bill for as long as he or she wishes. From time to time, a Senator may "filibuster" by speaking about a bill for an extended period of time, never yielding the floor to another Senator. This is usually, at most, a delaying tactic, since a single member cannot speak for an indefinite amount of time. By combining forces with other Senators, however, it can be an effective tool for stopping action on an item, or for forcing compromise on an item.

After all amendments are offered and voted upon, and all Senators who wish to talk have had a chance to, the bill is put forth for a vote.

Conference

Once a bill leaves the House and the Senate, it must be checked. If anything in the two versions of the bill differ, in any way (even in something as minor as punctuation), the bill must be reconciled. The house in which the bill originated is given a copy of the bill with its differences. For example, if the House originated a bill, then sent it along to the Senate for consideration, and the Senate made changes, the bill is sent back to the House. If the changes are minor, they might be accepted by the originating house with no debate. If changes are of a more substantial nature, however, a conference is called for.

In a conference, a number of Representative and a number of Senators meet to work out the differences in the two versions of the bill. The people in the conference committee are known as managers. The number of managers from each house of Congress is of little concern, because the managers from each house vote separately. So, for example, a conference committee might have ten Representatives and seven Senators. Managers are not allowed to substantially change the bill. They may add an amendment from one bill into the other, or take out an amendment added but not in the other. But they cannot add new amendments to both versions of the bill. When there is disagreement, new text, which might be a compromise between two versions, can be proposed. But the changes must be consistent with the bill itself.

Following negotiations, the managers make reports back to their houses, that they were able to agree on the bill, able to agree only on some parts of the bill, or were unable to agree at all on the bill. If the first case, the bill is revoted upon in both houses. If the latter two cases, the bill may go back to a new conference committee, referred back to the committees in the two houses, or it may just die because the differences are too vast to bridge.

On to the President

Regardless of how it leaves the Congress, once it does, it goes to the President for his signature. Note that the legislative process does not operate in a vacuum, and the President, or his staff, has been tracking bills that pass the Congress. A bill showing up on the President's desk, then, is never a surprise. In all likelihood, the President has commented on the bill, indicating his likelihood of signing it, perhaps indicating that he will veto it unless certain provisions are in the bill, and so on. By the time the President officially sees the bill, it is either in accordance with his wishes, or in defiance of them.

Officially, all bills that pass both houses are signed by the Speaker of the House and the President (or President Pro Tem) of the Senate before being presented to the President. This process does not usually include any politicized delays, but it could delay a bill a day or two. Then, the bill is delivered to the President and the 10-day clock starts to tick.

The President may sign the bill at any time after its deliverance. If it sits unsigned for more than the 10-day period, it becomes law regardless of his signature or not. The exception to this 10-day period is commonly called a pocket veto. In a pocket veto, the President can kill a bill if it goes unsigned and Congress adjourns prior to the 10-day time limit. The term "pocket veto" comes from the fact that if the President knows an adjournment is coming, he can place the bill in his pocket and forget about it. Note that the general interpretation of the adjournment needed for a pocket veto does not include short-term adjournments; only when the Congress adjourns "sine die," or, basically, for good. This might be when a Congress ends before the next begins, or during an extended adjournment during a seasonal break.

If the President vetoes the bill, a veto message is sent back to Congress. The message contains the President's objections to the bill. The two houses of Congress may decide to revote on the issue right away. Normally, it is known if enough members will vote to override the bill (two-thirds is needed). If such a majority exists, the revote is almost guaranteed. If no immediate revote is taken, the bill can be tabled for later vote or sent back to the committee to have further work done. If a vote is taken to override, and the vote fails, the bill dies.

The Bill Becomes Law

Officially, after the President signs the bill, 10 days passes without a signature, or after a veto override, the bill is considered law. It is in effect at that moment. But in reality, it is, of course, more difficult than that.

The law is transmitted to the Archivist of the United States. The Archivist assigns the law a number. The Archivist publishes the law on its own, as a pamphlet. This is known as a slip law. The slip law contains a lot more than just the text of the law itself, such as where it is be inserted in the United States Code, if at all; its legislative history; the committees through which it passed; and so on. In effect, the slip law is a historical document in itself.

The law is also published in the United States Statutes at Large, The Statutes at Large is a collection of all laws passed in any given Congress.

Finally, if a law affects the U.S. Code, it is added to the Code, striking out sections or clauses that a law removes, and adding new ones the law created. The entire U.S. Code is republished every six years.



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