How a Bill Becomes a Law

1. It all begins with an idea:

A concerned citizen, group, organization or legislator suggests legislation.

2. Drafting a Bill

After the idea for a bill is developed and the text of the bill is written, a member of Congress must officially introduce the bill in Congress by becoming the bill’s sponsor. Representatives and senators usually sponsor bills that are important to them and their constituents. Members of Congress who sponsor bills will try to gain support for them, in hopes that they will become laws. Two or more sponsors for the same bill are called co-sponsors.

3. Introduction of a Bill

Bills can be introduced whenever the Congress is in session. In the House, bills are officially introduced by placing them in a special box known as the hopper, which is located on the Speaker’s platform. In the Senate, a bill is introduced by placing it on the presiding officer’s desk or by formally introducing it on the Senate Floor. In the House, a bill clerk assigns the bill a number. House bills begin with “H.R.” Resolutions begin with “H. Res.,” “H. Con. Res.,” or “H. J. Res,” depending what type they are. Senate bills begin with “S.” The first reading of a bill means the bill’s title is read on the House Floor. The bill is then referred to a committee for changes or amendments.

4. Committee Action

The bill is referred to the appropriate committee. The 19 House standing committees and 16 Senate committees each have jurisdiction over different areas of public policy, such as health, education and the workforce, and international relations. The bill is placed on the committee’s calendar. The committee debates on, and may or may not make changes to it. Committee members vote to accept or reject the changes made during the markup session. If a bill includes many amendments, the committee may decide to introduce a “clean bill” with a new number. The committee votes on the bill after it has been debated and/or amended. A committee may stop action, or “table” a bill it deems unwise or unnecessary.

5. Leveraging your Position while in Committee

The vast majority of work on a bill is done while in debate by its committee. This is an ideal time to engage in the political process and let your legislators know your position.

  • Committee members are seen as experts in their field, so they have a vested interest in the outcome of a bill they are debating.
  • Contact Committee staff to make sure your opinion is heard, as these are the people who will be drafting the legislation and advising committee members.

6. Next Step - The Floor

If the committee has approved the bill, it is introduced again to the chamber where it originated, also known as the second reading. The bill is then scheduled for a third reading on the Floor, where it is debated and voted on. After a bill is sent to the Floor, it may receive immediate consideration or may be scheduled for a later date. If the bill is delayed, this is an excellent opportunity to contact your elected officials and urge them to support or oppose the legislation.

The Senate and the House have different governing rules. In the House a bill rarely is amended on the Floor, while any Senator may offer amendments to a bill on the Senate Floor at the federal level. Typically a House bill is considered for several hours to a few days, and it is not uncommon for a Senate bill to contain more than 100 amendments and take a week to debate.

7. Working Together: Senate and the House

In some cases, legislation may be considered simultaneously by the House and Senate. Or in other instances, one chamber acts first and then the bill is referred to the other body. There are usually differences between the bill versions produced from the House and Senate-some states even require it. Committee members from each chamber meet to draft legislation that is a compromise between the two bills. Then both the House and the Senate vote on the proposed bill. If the bill passes, it is sent to the Governor or President for their approval.

8. Signing a Bill into Law

The bill becomes a law once the Governor or President has signed it. The executive offer may also choose to veto a bill by refusing to sign it and then returning the bill to the Senate and the House. In some instances, the House and the Senate can override the veto and then the bill becomes a law without an executive signature.