Close Visit the newly redesigned website by clicking here.
Democracy in Action
September 2005

Experienced Legislative Liaisons know that the path from the introduction of a bill to its implementation can be a long and complex journey. Even those who have been involved at the state and local level can find the federal legislative process to be a bit intimidating. To help new and old canine legislation advocates understand how a bill becomes the law of the land, we are providing the following guide.

Introduction: Ideas for bill can come from anyone, although only a Member of Congress can introduce a bill. All bills are assigned an identifying number; in the House of Representative bills are preceded by H.R. and in the Senate by S.

Committee Action: Once a bill is introduced, it is referred to the committee that has jurisdiction over its subject. A bill may be sent to a single committee (single referral), several committees at once (multiple or joint referral), from one committee to another (sequential referral), or different parts of a bill may be sent to different committees (split referral).

Subcommittee Action: After receiving a bill, committees will generally refer it to the proper subcommittee, if one exists. Subcommittees have a more narrow focus and can devote more time to studying a bill. Several steps may take place within the subcommittee process:
• Subcommittees hold hearings and witnesses are called to testify about the merits and shortcomings of a piece of legislation. Questions from committee members and testimony of witnesses are generally prepared in advance to support a particular position on a bill.
• A subcommittee may also undertake a mark-up session. At this stage, members may offer their own views on a bill and suggest amendments. Amendments do not have to be related to the subject of the overall bill at this stage.
• After the mark-up is complete a final draft of the legislation is prepared the legislation is voted on. If a majority supports the bill it is “reported out.”
After a subcommittee reports out legislation, the full committee will go through the same consideration process. If a committee approves the bill it is reported out to its full house of origin – either the House of Representatives or the Senate.

Because most of the work on a bill is done at the committee level, committees – and in particular, committee chairs, have a great deal of power. In fact, committee chairs can decide against even taking up the bill for consideration, effectively killing the bill immediately. The more support a bill has, especially from congressional or committee leadership or from the President, the greater its chance of passage.

Publication of a Written Report: After a committee votes to report out a bill, the committee chair instructs the committee staff to prepare a report. This report describes the intent of the legislation, its impact on existing laws and programs, and views of dissenting members.

Floor Action: After the report is received, the legislation may be placed on the calendar for debate by the full House or Senate. In the House, the Rules Committee sets the terms of the debate. This committee may place time limits on the debate or on the number and type of amendments that may be offered. If the committee does not place a rule on a bill, there is little chance of it being debated and the bill dies. Once debate is opened on a bill, supporters and opponents have a chance to speak. Any amendments offered on the floor must be related to the subject matter of the legislation.

The Senate places fewer restrictions on debate. The terms of the debate are often set by a Unanimous Consent Agreement, which is approved by party leaders. Any Senator may filibuster, or speak against a particular piece of legislation as long as he or she wishes. A filibuster may only be ended by invoking cloture, which requires that 60 Senators vote to end debate. Amendments offered do not have to be germane, or related to the bill’s subject matter.

When debate is concluded in either chamber a final vote is taken on the legislation.

Conference Committee: Bills may originate in one chamber and, upon passage, move to the opposite chamber to repeat the approval process. However, there are often similar bills that work their way through both chambers at the same time. Either way, both the Senate and the House must pass identical legislation in order for it to be sent to the President, so a conference committee may be formed to reconcile any differences. Such a committee will be made up of both Senators and Congressmen, and each chamber may instruct their conferees on what is an acceptable compromise. Once the differences are resolved and a conference report is generated, both houses must vote to approve this final draft.

Action by the President: Once the bill has passed both houses, it is sent to the President for review. The President has several options at this stage.
• The President may sign the bill into law.
• The President may veto the bill and send it back to Congress with suggestions for improvement.
• If the President does not take any action while Congress is in session, after 10 days the bill will become law without his signature.
• If the President does not take any action after Congress has adjourned for the session, the bill will die. This is referred to as a pocket veto.

Overriding a Veto: If the President vetoes a bill, Congress may override his or her decision by a 2/3 vote in both chambers.

With all the steps needed for a bill to become law, it becomes obvious why so many bills that are introduced die or are modified significantly before passage. The process is designed to require a great deal to time and consideration, with checks and balances to ensure that the public is protected.