How a Bill Becomes a Law

Image from Robert Lunatto: Law Making Process, 2016

Introduction
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.


Your Thoughts

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.

  1. Do you think the process for creating news laws is overly complicated? Why or why not?
  2. Do you think the average American citizen understands this process? Why or why not?
  3. Is it incredibly important that the average citizen understand this process? Why or why not?
  4. In what ways might a two party system hurt or harm the process of law making in the House and Senate?

References/Resources
How Laws Are Made and How to Research Them
https://www.usa.gov/how-laws-are-made

How Laws Are Made
https://kids-clerk.house.gov/grade-school/lesson.html?intID=17

How a Bill Becomes a Law
http://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=4702

Pocket Veto
https://www.senate.gov/reference/glossary_term/pocket_veto.htm

The Federal Power to Tax
http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/taxingpower.html

Lesson Plans
How A Bill Becomes a Law Lesson Plan
https://www.usa.gov/bill-law-lesson-plan

Kids in the House: A Bill Becomes Law
https://kids-clerk.house.gov/lesson-plans/lesson-legis-3.pdf

Lesson Plans: The Legislative Process
https://www.archives.gov/legislative/resources/education/process

How Does a Bill Become a Law
https://www.education.com/lesson-plan/how-does-a-bill-become-a-law/

How a Bill Becomes a Law: Brainpop
https://educators.brainpop.com/bp-topic/how-a-bill-becomes-a-law/

10 Comments

  1. Growing up I always was watching school house rock. There was an episode/song called “I’m just a bill”. That was the only way I could remember the process of creating a bill. It’s crazy how long it takes for a bill to become a law. I don’t necessarily think that it is bad but I feel like it can become a pain dur to the length.

  2. I don’t think the average American understands the process on how a bill becomes a law. I had no idea what any of this meant before reading this article. I definitely think this is something that every American should be educated on, it’s super important to know things like this, and I just learned about it. It does seem to be a very long process, and for that reason, I feel like people wouldn’t want to take the time to learn about it.

  3. Your analogy of a bill being “shopped” to gain support from other representatives paints a very clear picture. I never had a concrete understanding of how a bill gained popularity and where. This representation of that process is very helpful and accessible to gain understanding about that portion of the process. I would also like to comment on your breakdown of the steps and how the headings of the breakdowns give readers insight as to what step of the process you are specifically talking about. It gives the process more readability and understanding in general.

  4. Before reading this article I just kept singing the School House Rock song “I’m Just a Bill”. Now I know if the song was detailed it would be a 6 minute song! The process for a law to be created is quite lengthy and almost unnecessary. Not difficult to understand, but just long.

  5. I do not think the process of creating new laws is overly complicated. I think the creation of laws is very tedious because people can always find numerous “loop holes” around what the words may portray. I think having that many people vote on a specific item and having that many people put their thoughts into a specific idea makes sure that people can not find any “loop holes”. I think having a bill possibly come back after a president vetoes is good because the House and Senate can think about it again and revote to decide if the bill really should become a law. 

  6. I really enjoyed reading this post about how a bill becomes a law. I always had a general idea of what happened but it was never listed out and explained to me like this. It can take a long time for a bill to become a law and there are many steps to the process, but they should not be overlooked. To answer question 3 from above, I believe it is extremely important especially as Americans that we should know this information because these bills could effect us later on.

  7. I believe that even though the process of making a law is very lengthy it is important that they are looked over and taken seriously because they affect many people that are asked to follow them. I believe that it is important to understand the concept of a bill becoming a law but on average an average person and a citizen shouldn’t have to know the specific just the idea of it. If the two party system had to agree on it I don’t think that many laws would be passed. The separate parties would have difficult on agreeing on laws because most often they have very different opinions.

  8. I do not think that the process to create new laws is overly complicated. We have laws for a reason- to keep people safe. It is important that laws are being made in the right way for the right reasons. They need to be passed down to be checked over, make sure they are fair, have opinions from others on whether it’s a good choice to pass it or not. If laws were just carelessly signed we could be in deeper problems, and the laws may not be as effective. This is done to make sure things are done the correct way, I don’t think there’s any other way this could be done.

  9. This article is extremely well done and explains how a bill becomes a law wonderfully. To answer the question listed above, “Do you think the process for creating news laws is overly complicated?” I would answer yes, but I do not think it should be changed. The founders were very wise, and put in checks and balances for a reason: they did not want their government to lead to tyranny. This system checks both sides perfectly. I do not think that most people understand this topic, which is a true testament to the failure of the modern American school system. As a future educator, it is my goal to better serve the next generation, which includes making sure they understand the basics of how their government functions.

  10. Although there are many hoops to jump through to create a law, I feel that it is important to be sure about the law before creating a bad policy. Therefore the process should be lengthy. I feel for the average citizen we do not fully understand this process because of our lack of expertise and experience and well as knowledge in law making. As a society, everyone, including myself, should learn more about this process to better understand why laws are passed. If we understand the process we won’t be so eager to judge law makers for making a mistake. A two party system can hurt the law making process because the two are so different and therefore may cause more of a debate than a decision.

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