Civics 101: How a Bill Becomes a Law

When you see something in the news related to politics, do you ever stop and find yourself wishing someone would explain for you how the whole thing is supposed to work? Luckily, the library is here to help with a new blog series: Civics 101! Whenever I spot something in current events related to civics (like how a branch of government works, or how citizens can get involved with their local governments) I'm gonna put on my research librarian gloves to bring you the relevant information on the laws and procedures in place that govern whatever's going on.

Since the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (which started out as House Resolution 1) was recently signed by the President, many library users have asked about how bills become law. I'll give you a brief outline (with references) followed by related resources you can take a look at.

How a Bill Becomes a Law

If you're having flashbacks to Schoolhouse Rock right now, you're not alone. In fact, "I'm Just a Bill" is still kicking around on YouTube and it's just as informative and catchy as it ever was.

 There are eight steps that a bill must go through in order to become a law:

  1. You need an idea.

Anyone can come up with an idea that leads to legislation, not just politicians. If you have any legislative ideas, you can contact your state and federal representatives and let them know! If your congressperson is interested in what you have to say, they will write a bill.

2. The bill is introduced.

A bill can start in either the House of Representatives or in the Senate. It must be introduced by at least one Congressperson who is sponsoring the bill. In the House, the bill is handed to the clerk of the House or it's put into "The Hopper".

In the Senate, members must gain recognition of the presiding officer to announce the introduction of a bill during the first 90 minutes of the day on Mondays or Tuesdays (called the morning hour). If any senator objects, the introduction of the bill is postponed.

In both instances, the bill gets an official legislative number, is labeled with any sponsors' names,  and is sent to the government printing office for printing.

3. The bill goes to committee.

Either the Speaker of the House or the presiding officer of the Senate sends the bill to one or more appropriate committees for discussion and revision. 

 All bills must pass through a committee (with some exceptions in the House), and if a committee declines to review a bill it is effectively dead. The House of Representatives has some interesting rules in place for the procedure of reviewing a bill and for bypassing committee that can be found here (Section B: Committee Action).

4. The bill is added to the legislative calendar(s) of the House or Senate.

In the House bills are added in the order they were introduced, but the Speaker of the House and the House Majority Leader have control over when and if a bill goes to the floor.

In the Senate, the bill is placed on either the legislative or executive calendar and the Senate Majority leader is responsible for scheduling. A bill can be heard on the floor whenever a majority of the Senate agree to hear it. 

5. The bill is debated.

The House Rules Committee decides how much debate time a bill gets and splits that time between proponents and opponents.

In the Senate, members can debate a bill for as long as they want. This is the point in the legislative process where a filibuster can occur, as Senators can speak for as long as they want, effectively "talking the bill to death." One of the few ways to stop a filibuster is to invoke the cloture rule.

6. The bill is brought to a vote.

The House has a quorum rule for voting, meaning that there's a minimum number (218) of representatives who must be present for a vote to take place. If the House doesn't have a quorum, they recess and/or send the Sargent at Arms to round up the missing representatives.

The Senate also has a quorum rule (51 senators must be present) but they also have ways of getting around the rule. For example, a quorum is usually assumed and only occasionally will a Senator call for a roll call vote to prove that there are enough senators present. Often the decision to make a final vote is done through unanimous consent but the cloture rule is becoming a more common way of getting to a vote.

7. The bills passed by the House and the Senate are combined, or reconciled.

Once a version of the bill has been passed by both the House and the Senate, a conference committee is formed from the senior members of each chamber of Congress. Often the two versions of the bill will have significant differences that need to be worked out. If the committee can't agree on a final version of the bill, the process is done and the bill(s) would be back at step one. If the committee agrees on a final version, it gets one last review/vote in both the House and the Senate before moving on.

8. The bill lands on the President's desk.

This is one of those spots where our system of checks and balances comes into play. The President has 10 days to decide what to do with the bill. If signed, it becomes law. If left unsigned, the bill becomes a law if Congress is in session and is "pocket vetoed" if Congress is not in session.

The President can also veto bills directly to prevent them from becoming law. They must send the bill back to Congress with a note listing the reason(s) for the veto and if Congress chooses, they may attempt to override the veto with a two-thirds vote in favor of the bill. If both chambers of Congress manage the override vote, then the bill is law. Congratulations!

If you want to look up information about a specific federal law or bill, the US Congress Legislative Record includes summaries of bills, the full text of bills, timelines, and all related legislative/executive actions related to lawmaking.

Further Reading

And for those who want more here's a few suggestions from KCLS's collections:

How Congress Works

This book can explain anything you want to know about the US Congress.

Law Made Fun Through Harry Potter's Adventures

A more light-hearted look at the American law system in general using parts of the Harry Potter series to explain how the law works.

How A Bill Becomes A Law

A video review from Access Video that you can stream to any device.

Parks and Recreation: Season Five

This quirky sitcom about local government (and snake juice and treating yo self) is one of my favorites, and this season of the show actually has an episode (Ep. 3) titled "How a Bill Becomes a Law."

Do you have any civics-related questions you'd like me to look into? Let me know in the comments!
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