HGov: Bill Becomes Law



Bills come to a committee from a variety of sources, including individual citizens and interest groups. A large number originate in departments and agencies of the executive branch. These bills are put forward to advance the policies advocated by the president. No matter where a bill originates, a member of Congress must introduce it. According to the rules of the House, the speaker distributes proposed legislation to the various committees for study. In the Senate, the majority leader handles this task.

Once a bill is sent to a committee, the chair decides what to do with it. One option is simply to ignore it. Another option is to hold hearings on the bill, either in the full committee or in one of its subcommittees. Subcommittees are smaller groups of lawmakers that focus on particular areas within the full committee’s jurisdiction. The committee chair can refer a bill either to a subcommittee that will give it a favorable reception or to one that will not. This is another source of a chair’s considerable power. A committee’s work on a proposed bill can be divided into three phases. At each point, the legislation can move forward or die.

The first phase usually begins with a legislative hearing in front of the subcommittee to which the bill was assigned by the committee chair. The purpose of the hearing is to listen to testimonies and gather information from individuals who are interested in or have expertise to share about the proposed legislation. The people called on to testify may include the bill’s sponsors, public officials, lobbyists, and private citizens. Hearings can be fairly short, or they can drag on for days. Subcommittee chairs, for the most part, control the selection and scheduling of witnesses. If they favor a bill, they can move the hearing along. If they oppose a bill, they kill it by scheduling hearings that never seem to end.

After the hearings end, subcommittee members gather to determine a bill’s final language. This meeting is known as a markup session, because this is when members mark up, or amend, the bill. At least one-third of the subcommittee’s members must be present at a markup session to make up a quorum. The chair starts a markup session by noting the bill’s title and opening it up to amendment. Amendment procedures vary by committee, but typically any change in a bill must be approved by a majority of those present. The committee members usually debate the merits of each proposed amendment before voting on it. During markup, members are often torn between their roles as delegates and as trustees. As delegates, they want to address the particular interests of their home districts or states. As trustees, they want to shape a bill that will be good for the country while also attracting support from other lawmakers, the president, and the general public.

Once subcommittee members deal with the last amendment to the bill, they vote on a motion to return the bill to the full committee. Those who do not want the bill to move on vote no at this point. However, if a bill has made it through markup, it will most likely be sent back to the full standing committee. The standing committee can then accept the bill as is or amend it further, even holding more hearings and its own markup session. It then votes on whether to report the bill to the full House or Senate for a floor vote. If the vote is favorable, the committee staff prepares a written report explaining why the committee recommends the enactment of this bill. It is then up to the full House or Senate to agree or disagree with the committee’s recommendation.

In the Senate, a bill reported out of committee is ready to be voted on by the full chamber. But in the House, the bill’s sponsors need to clear one more hurdle: the House Rules Committee. This powerful committee can move a bill ahead of others on the House schedule so that it can be considered quickly. Or it can delay a bill’s arrival on the House floor. The Rules Committee also sets the rules for debate on a bill. A bill’s supporters usually ask for a closed rule. A closed rule severely limits floor debate and amendments to a bill. A closed rule makes it easier to get a bill through the House quickly, with no damaging debate or changes. Opponents, in contrast, prefer an open rule. An open rule allows floor debate and the introduction of amendments that could cripple or kill the bill. The Rules Committee does not act independently of the speaker of the House. The speaker often sets the guidelines for when and how a bill will be debated on the floor. Should the speaker desire changes in a bill, for example, he or she might arrange for an open rule.

In both chambers, the majority party controls what happens on the chamber floor. With thousands of bills lined up waiting for a vote, floor time is precious. The speaker of the House and the majority leader of the Senate determine which bills will be debated and who will be allowed to speak for how long. Once floor debate on a bill begins, the speaker and majority leader both have the power of recognition. No member may rise to address the chamber without first being recognized, or given permission, by the leader. The power of recognition is so important that members of Congress do all they can to stay on good terms with their House and Senate leaders. Armed with the power of recognition, the speaker and majority leader are usually able to run an orderly legislative process. That process has three main parts: (1) general debate on the bill, (2) debate and voting on amendments to the bill, and (3) voting on final passage of the bill.

With 435 members, the House has to put limits on floor debate. On most bills, the Rules Committee often limits general debate to one hour—30 minutes each for the majority and the minority parties. The goal of this one-hour rule, like much that takes place on the House floor, is to keep the legislative process moving. The bill’s sponsor and main opponent usually control a bill’s debate time. They dole out their precious minutes to colleagues who want to speak on the bill. Typically, House members are limited to just one or two minutes at the microphone, so they learn to make their points quickly. Still, with most floor debates now being televised, members appreciate even this short amount of face time in front of the voters back home.

The Senate prides itself on its tradition of unlimited debate. With only 100 members, it can afford to be more relaxed about time. But sometimes, this tradition can bring the legislative process to a halt. In contrast to the speaker of the House, the Senate majority leader has limited control over the legislative agenda. To schedule a bill, the majority leader often must work closely with the minority leader. The majority leader also has less control over floor debate. Senators must consent to limit debate. If they do not, any senator—once recognized—may speak on any subject at any length. This right comes into play most vividly when a senator starts a filibuster. A filibuster involves prolonged debate or other delaying tactics aimed at blocking the passage of a bill favored by a majority of lawmakers. A Senate filibuster can go on for days, with one long-winded speaker following another. The Senate adopted a means of closing debate known as the cloture rule. At that time, this rule required a supermajority of two-thirds of all senators to cut off debate. Today, cloture requires only three-fifths of the Senate, or 60 votes. A filibuster is not the only delaying tactic available to senators. They can also place a hold on bills to delay debate. A hold signals the lawmaker’s intention of launching a filibuster if the bill is sent to the Senate floor. Because the identity of the person placing the hold may be kept secret, senators use this tactic when they do not want to openly oppose a bill.

Like the rules for debate, the amendment process also differs in the two chambers. In the House, when general debate ends, the measure is opened to amendment. Under the five-minute rule, members debate each proposed change. In theory, though not often in practice, this rule limits members who support and oppose an amendment to five minutes of debate time each. Once all amendments have been voted on, the full House is ready to vote on final passage of the bill. The Senate follows a similar procedure, with one important difference. According to House rules, an amendment is supposed to be germane, or relevant, to the content of the bill. In the Senate, however, senators can attach amendments that are totally unrelated to a bill. Known as riders, such amendments may be used as “sweeteners” to win more votes for a bill. Or they can serve as “poison pills” designed to make sure a bill fails. Riders are often used to get controversial legislation or bills favoring special interest groups through Congress. Must-pass legislation, such as an emergency funding bill, tends to attract many riders because the president is unlikely to veto such a measure. The result is often described as a Christmas tree bill.

Floor votes in the House and Senate can be taken in three ways. In a voice vote, supporters all together call out “aye,” meaning “yes.” Then opponents call out “no.” The louder voices, in the judgment of the presiding officer, win the vote. In a standing vote, first the supporters and then the opponents stand to be counted. Neither of these two methods records how each individual lawmaker voted. In a roll-call vote, each member’s vote is officially recorded. In the Senate, this is done by having a clerk call each name from the roll of senators and recording each one’s vote. The much larger House uses an electronic voting system. Each member inserts his or her plastic Vote-ID card into a voting station slot and punches a button for “yea” (“yes”), “nay” (“no”), or “present.” A vote of “present” means the member abstains, or chooses not to cast a vote on this bill.

Before voting on any bill, most legislators consider the views of their constituents, as well as their own personal convictions. They may also feel pressures and influences from several other often conflicting, sources.

Interest groups are sometimes called pressure groups and with good reason. Their lobbyists crowd committee rooms and the halls of Congress. They confront legislators who are undecided on how to vote on a particular bill. They can also be persistent.

Leaders of each political party expect their members to support the party’s public policy goal. To gain that support, leaders can pass out favors, such as the promise of a plum committee assignment or help raising campaign funds. They can also use persuasion.

Members of Congress regularly yield to the pressure to trade votes. This kind of logrolling, or mutual support and cooperation, is a common way to get things done in Congress. Typically, two opposing groups each want a particular bill passed, so each promises to vote for the other’s measure.

Once the House or Senate passes a bill, the bill does not go directly to the president. Both chambers of Congress must vote to approve the bill in identical form before it goes from Capitol Hill to the White House for the president’s signature. A bill first passed by the House must be voted on by the Senate and vice versa. If the bill is changed in any way by the second chamber, the House and Senate will have to work out a compromise version. This often happens informally, and leaders from the two chambers iron out their differences and come to an agreement on any amendments. However, with major or controversial legislation, House and Senate leaders cannot reach agreement informally. In such cases, the bill is sent to a joint conference committee. The task of this committee is to work out a compromise that a majority of lawmakers in both chambers can accept and that the president will sign into law.

Once the bill is delivered to the White House, the president has 10 days (not counting Sundays) to do one of the following:

  • Sign the bill into law.
  • Veto the bill.
  • Take no action on the bill. At the end of 10 days and Congress is in session, the bill becomes law without the president’s signature.
  • Take no action on the bill. At the end of 10 days and Congress has adjourned, the bill fails without the president’s veto.

A bill that has been vetoed by the president is delivered back to the first chamber that passed it. That chamber may decide that the bill cannot be saved. Or it may try to override, or cancel, the presidential veto.

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