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. I don’t think the process is overly complicated. I feel that it is important for it to be a little complicated and lengthy so that only the good ones make it through to becoming a law. These laws are going to affect a lot of people so they need to be taken into careful consideration. I don’t think most citizens really understand how tedious this process is but it should be something that we learn and are taught.

  2. This article is extremely relevant to my life right now as an educator. I am currently in a fourth grade classroom, and I just taught them a lesson on the three branches of government. A large part of this government unit, is how a bill becomes a law. The students had many questions about this process and were really interested in how it works. This article is very insightful about some of the specifics that some people may not know about how our government leaders create laws.

  3. I found this article most interesting. The whole purpose of government is to abide by, what “the people” want. As they said; “an average citizen or representative” can come up with an idea that can be brought up to government officials. I also gained new knowledge about creating laws. Not only does it require the vote of the house, but also the vote of the senate. It’s not just the president who makes the final decision on whether or not something is past, but the majority of both groups in the legislative branch.

  4. The process of turning a bill into a law seems to be a bit lengthy and rigorous. I believe that though this process can be tedious, it is crucial that it is. A new law can affect millions, if not everyone, and should be taken very seriously and not easily passed. If a new law comes into action that hasn’t been taken into serious consideration, it could be detrimental to society, I believe.

  5. the process of creating these laws is more complicated than most think. thee are a lot of people involved and many steps that are taken to ensure that the law is safe enough to pass.

  6. I think the process of creating new laws is very complicated and tedious. But in saying that does not reflect how necessary I believe it is to be complicated and tedious. As someone who believes that the less that gets done on the federal level the better due to political ideology reasons then I have come to appreciate the long process the framers had in mind.

  7. I think that since it is such a long process to pass a bill, citizens who do not understand why would want to shorten the process to see faster results. The slow process is not necessarily make it a bad thing though. It is thought over thoroughly so there are no complications and there is less of a chance of getting rid of a law because everything will be thought out.

  8. I personally do not think the process of creating new laws is to long of a process. I think that when a new law is being created it should have to go through a lengthy process because they are important and will affect everyone around. I also think that that it is okay for the American people to not understand what a law had to go through before it is approved because that is not something that usually comes up in conversation. In today’s world especially I think that a law should have to go through a long process to get approved by the legislature before becoming a legal law.

  9. I do not think that the process for creating a law is complicated at all, it is just a lengthy process. I think that a potential bill going through all of those people is good because it means there is more thought put into it as to wether or not it’ll be beneficial and a stupid idea would not be passed. The average American probably think that the president is the person who passes bills, but they probably do not know the entire process. This would be a great article for the average person to read. I learned something new reading this, such as that a citizen could create a bill to be passed by contacting their representative. I think citizens should know this is possible, especially if they are trying to better the world and have the ideas to do so.
    The two part system can be bad because there are so many people looking at and going over this bill, two groups have to agree upon passing this bill, but if it keeps getting sent back to the previous floor, the bill could potentially get revised and changed so much that it may not even be the same as when it was first sent through.
    Also, I found it interesting that the president does have final say, but he could be overridden anyways if he doesn’t agree.
    This was a very interesting read for me. I enjoyed it.

  10. This article is a great explanation of how bills are passed. Although there are a lot of steps to creating a law, I do not think it is a bad thing. Because it is such a long process, there is enough time to evaluate the pro’s and con’s and then we are able to create a good and concise law that will work.

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