Understanding Congress Part 3 of 7: How are laws are made
The process is complex. Of the tens of thousands of bills in one two-year session, only a small percentage ever become law. This part describes the process Congress uses make laws.
Part 1 of 7: Congress Overview
Part 2 of 7: Making sense of Congressional Terminology
Part 3 of 7: How are laws are made
Part 4 of 7: Types of Bills
Part 5 of 7: Communicating with Congress
Part 6 of 7: How Votetocracy can help Americans
Part 7 of 7: The Influence Landscape
The legislative process begins when a Member of Congress introduces a bill by placing it, signed, in the Clerk’s ‘hopper’. The bill is assigned a number and referred to the relevant committee by the Speaker of the House or the Majority Leader of the Senate. The bill is then printed and a record is attached to the bill that lists the legislative procedures it has gone through. Bills can be suggested by the President, an organization, or an individual but can only be introduced by a Representative, Senator, or delegate from one of the territories or the District of Columbia. The printing process involves the Government Printing Office first when the bill is entered into the system, printed and distributed. Next, the Library of Congress makes the bill available to the public on the Internet.
Committees are staffed by members of both parties. The Majority party chairs the committee and holds a majority of seats (votes). The Minority party has fewer votes and its leader is known as the committee Ranking Member. Committees scrutinize introduced bill details, discuss or debate provisions in the bill, and can amend the bill with a majority vote of the committee members. Each committee's jurisdiction is defined by certain subject matter under the rules to cover one agency or program of the federal government or another. A primary committee is responsible for the bill and time limits may be placed on committee and subcommittee consideration. It is not unusual for a bill to move through more than one committee if provisions within are under the jurisdiction of other committees. Bills will often be considered by a subcommittee if that subcommittee’s jurisdiction prevails due to bill content.
One of the first actions taken by a committee is to seek the input of the relevant departments and agencies about a bill. The committee process can be lengthy or brief and, on occasion, a bill will receive only cursory consideration by the committee and is then sent directly to the floor for a vote.
“If the committee votes to report the bill to the House, the committee staff writes a committee report. The report describes the purpose and scope of the bill and the reasons for its recommended approval. Generally, a section-by-section analysis sets forth precisely what each section is intended to accomplish. All changes in existing law must be indicated in the report and the text of laws being repealed must be set out. This requirement is known as the ''Ramseyer'' rule. A similar rule in the Senate is known as the ''Cordon'' rule. Committee amendments also must be set out at the beginning of the report and explanations of them are included. Executive communications regarding the bill may be referenced in the report.”
(Courtesy, US House)
Bills in committee may be subject to public hearings. A hearing, at least theoretically, provides expert witnesses on issues related to bills under consideration. There is a political aspect to committee hearings, too. A hearing may be held to raise public awareness of an issue.
Most bills go through the markup process in which committee members further scrutinize and discuss the bill and offer amendments that are then voted on.
After hearings are completed, the bill is considered in a session that is popularly known as the "mark-up" session. Members of the committee study the viewpoints presented in detail. Amendments may be offered to the bill, and the committee members vote to accept or reject those changes.
If members believe a bill is being held up in committee, a Discharge Petition can be created. If 218 or more Members of the House sign the petition, the bill is discharged to the floor for an up or down vote.
The original sponsor of a bill is listed as such along with original cosponsors. If a bill develops popularity further sponsors are called additional sponsors. Any Member can sponsor a bill. If a cosponsor places (by request) next to his or her signature it means the cosponsorship is at the request of another, such as the President or other Member. While Member names cannot be removed from a bill Cosponsors can make a unanimous consent request to have his or her name removed from the bill. Without objection the request is usually granted.
On the House Floor
The bill is then reported to the House floor with or without amendments. A bill, however, can be tabled in committee thereby ending its forward motion. During the process, if a bill is going to move to the floor for debate, the Rules Committee creates the rule for debate. That rule and committee action determines if a ‘clean’ bill comes to the floor. A clean bill has been amended by the committee and sent to the floor with the amendments. The rule, then, would either suspend the rules and seek two thirds vote support for passage or provide for the amount of debate time for pros-and cons. In such a procedure the rule may allow for one ‘motion to recommit’ which is the opportunity for one last amendment before a vote on passage. Motions to recommit are voted on and if successful, the bill is returned to committee for the specific amendment proposed after-which a vote on passage is held. If the motion fails the House votes on final passage.
Consideration of a measure by the full House can be a simple or very complex operation. In general a measure is ready for consideration by the full House after it has been reported by a committee. Under certain circumstances, it may be brought to the Floor directly.
A bill destined for the floor and expected passage is commonly referred to as ‘A moving vehicle’. An amendment or provision added to the bill is called a ‘Rider’. A Rider can be an entire bill or a provision, related or unrelated to the underlying bill. Often, Riders are bills or provisions felt to be urgent and expedited by riding with the main bill if it is likely to pass. Other times Riders are unpopular bills or provisions that have a better chance of passage if not in a stand-alone bill.
After Passage by one body
After passage by the House or Senate, the bill is then sent to the other body where it may or may not be debated and voted on. If a bill is passed without amendment by the other body it is then prepared for the President’s signature. If the other body amends the bill it is returned to the first body for reconsideration. In most cases the other body agrees to the changes but not always. The amendment process can send a bill back and forth until a compromise is agreed to or can lead to a conference to iron out the differences.
A House/ Senate conference is a meeting of selected Representatives and Senators (and staff) appointed to bring the differences in the bill to resolution. When the conference makes its decision, the bill is sent, usually to the House, for a vote and then for final passage to the Senate. Upon passage, such a bill would also be prepared for the President’s signature.
The official votes of the House and Senate and their committees are Roll Call votes, also called ‘The Yeas and Nays’ those votes are cast electronically by each Senator and Representatives. Such votes create the voting record of the elected officials. Another type of vote is the voice vote. Used in both bodies the voice vote does not attribute a Members vote to the matter being voted on.
There is also a procedure called a division vote. Division votes result in two votes on a matter. They are a vote where members stand up to be counted and the vote is not recorded in the record. First comes a voice vote that is disputed and then a Roll Call vote to affirm the voice vote.
In the Senate
Senators introduce bills and resolutions by presenting it to one of the clerks at the Presiding Officer's desk. House rules allow for the announcement of a bill being introduced on the floor by the Representatives, Senator rules are similar to the House but require a more formal introduction on the Senate floor. Senators frequently ask permission that a bill be printed in the Congressional Record. Copies of the bill are sent to the office of the chairman of each committee to which it has been referred. The clerk of the committee enters it on the committee's Legislative Calendar.
“It is not in order to consider bills and joint resolutions reported from committee unless the report includes a list of congressional earmarks, limited tax benefits and limited tariff benefits in the bill or in the report (including the name of any Member, Delegate or Resident Commissioner who submitted a request to the committee for each respective item included in such list) or a statement that the proposition contains no such congressional earmarks, limited tax benefits, or limited tariff benefits.” (Courtesy US House)
Availability of Reports and Hearings
“A measure or matter reported by a committee (except the Committee on Rules in the case of a resolution providing a rule, joint rule, or order of business) may not be considered in the House until the third calendar day (excluding Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays unless the House is in session on those days) on which the report of that committee on that measure has been available to the Members of the House. This rule is subject to certain exceptions including resolutions providing for certain privileged matters and measures declaring war or other national emergency. A report of the Committee on Rules on a rule, joint rule, or order of business must lay over for one legislative day prior to consideration. However, it is in order to consider a report from the Committee on Rules on the same day it is reported that proposes only to waive the availability requirement. If hearings were held on a measure or matter so reported, the committee is required to make every reasonable effort to have those hearings printed and available for distribution to the Members of the House prior to the consideration of the measure in the House. Committees are also required, to the maximum extent feasible, to make their publications available in electronic form. A general appropriation bill reported by the Committee on Appropriations may not be considered until printed transcripts of committee hearings and a committee report thereon have been available to the Members of the House for at least three calendar days (excluding Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays unless the House is in session on those days).” (Courtesy, US House)
“Each standing committee, other than the Committee on Appropriations, is required to review and study, on a continuing basis, the application, administration, execution, and effectiveness of the laws dealing with the subject matter over which the committee has jurisdiction and the organization and operation of federal agencies and entities having responsibility for the administration and evaluation of those laws.
The purpose of the review and study is to determine whether laws and the programs created by Congress are being implemented and carried out in accordance with the intent of Congress and whether those programs should be continued, curtailed, or eliminated. In addition, each committee having oversight responsibility is required to review and study any conditions or circumstances that may indicate the necessity or desirability of enacting new or additional legislation within the jurisdiction of that committee, and must undertake, on a continuing basis, future research and forecasting on matters within the jurisdiction of that committee. Each standing committee also has the function of reviewing and studying, on a continuing basis, the impact or probable impact of tax policies on subjects within its jurisdiction.” (Courtesy, US House)
Differences between House and Senate
(Courtesy, US House)
“The order of business in the Senate is simpler than that of the House. While the procedure of both bodies is basically founded on Jefferson's Manual of Parliamentary Practice, the practices of the two bodies are at considerable variance. The order and privileged status of motions and the amending procedure of the two are at less variance than their method of calling up business. The business of the Senate (bills and resolutions) is not divided into classes as a basis for their consideration, nor are there calendar days set aside each month in the Senate for the consideration of particular bills and resolutions. The nature of bills has no effect on the order or time of their initial consideration.
“The Senate, like the House, gives certain motions a privileged status over others and certain business, such as conference reports, command first or immediate consideration, under the theory that a bill which has reached the conference stage has been moved a long way toward enactment and should be privileged when compared with bills that have only been reported.
“At any time the Presiding Officer may lay, or a Senator may move to lay, before the Senate any bill or other matter sent to the Senate by the President or the House of Representatives, and any pending question or business at that time shall be suspended, but not displaced. Included in this category are veto messages, which constitute privileged business and which may be brought up at almost any time; however, a Senator cannot be deprived of his right to the floor for this purpose nor may certain business be interrupted, such as approving the Journal, while the Senate is dividing "or while a question of order or a motion to adjourn is pending."
“The Senate is a continuing body as contrasted with the House. Two-thirds of the Senators of an old Congress return to the subsequent new one without having to be re-elected, but all Representatives must stand for re-election every two years. Thus the manner and extent of organizing each new Senate have not been established under the influence of definite breaks between each Congress as has been the experience of the House, nor have the parliamentary rules of the Senate been equally subjected to alterations. Representatives re-adopt their old rules of procedure at the inception of each Congress, often with slight modification, while Senators have not given a general reaffirmation to their rules since 1789. The rules adopted by the Senate in the first Congresses have remained in force continuously, with the exceptions of particular additions or abolishments from time to time. Any such changes are made by amending the rules to meet new needs of the body. Changes have not been frequent, as demonstrated by the fact that a codification of the accumulated alterations has occurred on only a few different occasions.
“The continuity of sessions of the same Congress is provided for by the Senate rules:
At the second or any subsequent session of a Congress, the legislative business of the Senate which remained undetermined at the close of the next preceding session of that Congress shall be resumed and proceeded with in the same manner as if no adjournment of the Senate had taken place. (Rule XVIII)
“In its rules and practices, the Senate always has emphasized the importance of maintaining decorum in its proceedings. ”At no stage of the Senate's proceedings may a Senator "refer offensively to any State of the Union." "No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator." "No Senator shall interrupt another in debate without his consent, and to obtain such consent he shall first address the Presiding Officer; and no Senator shall speak more than twice upon any one question in debate on the same day without leave of the Senate, which shall be determined without debate." "If any Senator, in speaking or otherwise, transgress the rules of the Senate, the Presiding officer shall, or any Senator may, call him to order; and when a Senator shall be called to order he shall sit down, and not proceed without leave of the Senate, which, if granted, shall be upon motion that he be allowed to proceed in order, which motion shall be determined without debate."”