Congress is known as the legislative branch of the United States government and is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. There are 435 members of the House and 100 members of the US Senate, giving us a total of 535 members of Congress. The primary function of Congress is to create new laws or modify existing ones. Congress also has additional responsibilities and authority such as to collect taxes and pay debts, but their primary responsibility is to make laws.
In recent times, the Republican party has controlled the House of Representatives, the US Senate and the White House, allowing that party to wield a lot of political authority. In the most recent midterm election the Democratic party won the House and will begin as the a majority in the new year. Meanwhile, the opposing party will still control the US Senate and the White House. Getting familiar with these power dynamics is helpful when trying to understand the process of creating new laws in the US.
The most important job of Congress is that of creating new laws. As we have stated in previous articles, it is important for citizens in a democracy to know their rights and understand the political process. In this case, it is important that citizens understand the process of how laws are made. An informed citizenry is tantamount to a successful democracy and its survival. When citizens understand the role their representatives play in creating new laws they can also understand the importance of voting in local, midterm and presidential elections.
The Origins of a Bill
A law starts with a simple or complex idea, which can come from an average American citizen or a representative. Citizens who have ideas for laws can contact their Representative to discuss the validity of their ideas. If the Representative thinks the idea has merit they move forward by doing research and then writing the ideas into a bill. Once the Representative has written the bill, the bill needs to have a sponsor. At this point the bill it is shopped around to other Representatives, to gain support.
Introducing a Bill
When the bill has a sponsor and enough support it is ready to be introduced to The House. At this point, the bill is placed (Only by Representatives) in what is known as the hopper. The hopper is a box on the side of the clerk’s desk that is designated for the introduction of new bills. The clerk assigns the bill a number beginning with the designation “HR” and is then read allowed by the reading clerk to all of the representatives.
Sending the Bill to Committee
After a bill is introduced, the Speaker of the House sends it to one of the standing committees in the House. The standing committees are made up of experts on a variety of topics such as foreign affairs, agriculture, ethics, armed services and education. Once the committee receives the bill they begin a process of reviewing, researching and revising the bill. From this process, the committee decides whether they will vote on the bill or send it back to the House floor. Often the bill is sent to subcommittee so that the bill can be looked at more closely by experts before being sent back for committee approval.
The Debating of a Bill
Once the committee has approved a bill it is then reported (Or sent) to the House floor to be debated by the House of Representatives. During the process of debating, Representatives discuss why they are for or against the bill. After which a reading clerk reads each section of the bill while the Representatives recommend changes. When all of the changes have been made the bill is at a point where Representatives are permitted to vote on it. If a majority of the 435 members of the House approves of the bill it passes in the House of Representatives and moves on to be voted on by the US Senate.
The Bill Moves from the House to the Senate
The process is very similar in Senate as it is in the House. The bill is examined, researched and revised by a Senate committee and ultimately reported to the Senate floor to be voted on by a voice vote of “yea” or “nay.”
What Happens When a Bill Reaches the President?
If a majority of the Senators approve of the bill by a vote of “yea” it moves on to the President. Once the president receives the bill on his desk he has three options. He can sign the bill (In which case the bill becomes a law), refuse to sign the bill, or veto it, sending it back to the House with written reasons for the veto. If members of the House and the Senate still support the bill and believe it should be a law they can hold another vote to override the President’s veto. The veto is overridden if two-thirds of the House of Representatives and the Senators vote in favor of the bill, at which case the bill becomes law. If the President does nothing, the Constitution gives him 10 days to respond when Congress is in session. If he has not signed the bill in ten days, it becomes law without his signature. This process is known as a pocket veto.
In summary, a bill becomes law if both the House and Senate vote has been approved by the president, by a pocket veto or the presidential veto has been overridden. In these scenarios a bill can become a law.
The articles in Democracy and Me are designed to provide social studies resources and information for teachers and the general public. One of the things we would like to see is that the space be more of an interactive space where users can engage in a dialogue, in the true spirit of democracy. Along these lines, we would like to propose some questions in response to the article. Please respond to one or all of the questions in the comment section below or feel free to give a response or reaction to the article in general.
- Do you think the process for creating news laws is overly complicated? Why or why not?
- Do you think the average American citizen understands this process? Why or why not?
- Is it incredibly important that the average citizen understand this process? Why or why not?
- In what ways might a two party system hurt or harm the process of law making in the House and Senate?
How Laws Are Made and How to Research Them
How Laws Are Made
How a Bill Becomes a Law
The Federal Power to Tax
How A Bill Becomes a Law Lesson Plan
Kids in the House: A Bill Becomes Law
Lesson Plans: The Legislative Process
How Does a Bill Become a Law
How a Bill Becomes a Law: Brainpop