Schoolchildren of the seventies learned about how our government works by watching Schoolhouse Rock videos. Aimed at a young audience, these short clips provided an entertaining and memorable method to learn some basic civics lessons.  If you want an example, click here, and soon you, too will be singing “I’m just a bill on Capitol Hill…”. It’s a good introduction to today’s topic – how a bill becomes a law.

Starting With An Idea

The first step in the process is the formation of an idea.  Someone, or a group of people – regular citizens or elected officials – faces a particular situation and says “You know, there really ought to be a law that says…”. That individual or group must next find a member of the House of Representatives who will champion the cause and sponsor legislation to make that idea ultimately become a law. The Representative and her staff will take the idea and convert those thoughts into a bill, which is an initial draft of what the Representative hopes will one day become a law. The Representative (now the bill’s sponsor) will then discuss the bill with her colleagues, so that they will be well informed and support her efforts to advance the bill.

The Committee Process

Once the idea has been transformed into a bill, and there is a sponsor and other Representatives have joined with the sponsor to help move the bill forward, the sponsor will introduce the bill to the House of Representatives. The bill is delivered to the clerk of the House, and the Speaker of the House will then assign it to the appropriate committee for consideration. There are numerous standing committees of the House of Representatives, which act as initial clearinghouses for the consideration of bills before they are introduced to the full House.  There are committees on appropriations, agriculture, small business, and veterans’ affairs,to name a few.  After the bill has been sent to committee, it will be researched, debated, and edited.  If the committee feels that additional scrutiny is needed, it can send the bill to a subcommittee, which will undertake further inquiry before reporting back to the committee on its findings.  The committee will determine whether the bill should advance to the full House, or whether it is not appropriate for further consideration – what is commonly known as “dying in committee.”

US House of Representatives chamber
US House of Representatives chamber. Image via

The committee will report on the bill to the full House of Representatives, which will then have its first opportunity to debate the subject matter. As you can imagine, the debate can be quite spirited, with opponents and proponents offering their opinions about the merits of the bill. Throughout this process, further edits to the bill may be made in order to address concerns raised by the members of the House of Representatives, and at the end of the debate and revision process, the members will vote on the bill. Their votes can be recorded in one of three ways:  by voice, by standing, or by the use of an electronic voting system that records the votes. If the bill is approved by a simple majority of the House of Representatives, then the clerk certifies it and it is on its way to the Senate.

On To The Senate 

The process in the Senate is almost identical to that of the House of Representatives.  Just as there is a House sponsor of the bill, support will also have been garnered among the Senators, and there will be a Senate sponsor and a number of other Senators who will speak on its behalf.  After going through the same committee process as it went through in the House of Representatives, eventually the bill will come to the floor of the full Senate.  It will be debated, it will be edited, and then it will be voted upon.  In the Senate, however, all votes are voice votes.  If the bill gets a simple majority of Senators voting in its favor, then the next step is to make its way to the President for the final leg of its journey to become a law.

The President’s Role 

President Kennedy signing the Mental Health Law.
President Kennedy signing the Mental Health Law. Image via

The President has three choices when it comes to what he will do with any bill that comes before him after approval by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. He can sign it, in which case it becomes the law of the land, and will be implemented and enforced. In the alternative, he can veto the bill, and send it back to the House of Representatives with an explanation of why he has decided to exercise his veto power. The whole process can repeat itself, with the bill moving again through the House and Senate, but in order to override the Presidential veto, this time, a supermajority of support is required (2/3).

In the generally unlikely event that the House and Senate feel so strongly about a vetoed bill that they are able to pass it with a supermajority, then the bill becomes a law despite the President’s original veto. The third and final option of the President is what is known as a pocket veto. Exercise of a pocket veto simply means that the President determines to do nothing with respect to a particular bill, as though he tucked it into his jacket pocket with no further action. Timing is key for a pocket veto – if Congress happens to be in session when the bill is pocketed, then after 10 days, it becomes law. If Congress is not in session, then after that same 10 day period, nothing happens – the bill doesn’t become a law, and if Congress wishes to make it law, it must restart the entire process anew.

To see what the House of Representatives has introduced to the floor this week, click here.  To search the status of a House bill that interests you, or to see what your elected representative has in the works, click here.  For information on active legislation before the Senate, click here. To see what the Senate voted upon, and how your elected member of the Senate voted, click here.  Lastly, to entertain yourself and get a brush-up on history and civics, watch some more Schoolhouse Rock videos here.


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Jennifer B. Granzow

Ms. Granzow holds a JD from the Syracuse University College of Law. Her practice is concentrated in the areas of business and corporate law, real estate, economic development, and government relations, with an emphasis on grants and public funding.

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