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Congressional Help: Legislative Process

 

 

 

 

Stage 1: The Bill is Drafted  

Draft Bills

Legislation can be written by anyone, but only a Member of Congress can introduce a bill (or "measure") for consideration. The actual text of proposed bills frequently is drafted by legislative aides working either for members of Congress or for congressional committees. Occasionally you will encounter the same piece of legislation being introduced as a companion bill in both Chambers.

The President can propose a bill, and even send Congress a Presidential message urging its enactment into law, but cannot introduce it. The President usually sends draft legislation to Congress with a letter or other explanatory material discussing the reasons for submitting the legislation. Sometimes the House will order a Presidential bill and its explanatory material to be printed as an official House Document.

Tip:  If you are trying to find an Administration bill and do not know its number, try looking in the Congressional Record for a bill introduced "by request", or one that was introduced by the chairman or ranking member of the committee with jurisdiction over the issue involved (for example, the House Ways and Means Committee or the Senate Finance Committee have responsibility for legislation on taxation).

Stage 2: The Bill is Introduced  

Introduction of Legislation

A Member of Congress can submit a bill for introduction at any time during a Chamber's daily session. The Chamber's Bill Clerk assigns the legislation a bill number, and the leadership, influenced by the majority party's political agenda, decides whether to do one of these things:

Tip: Holding a bill "at the desk" or ordering it "placed on the calendar" keeps it available for consideration by either the full House or Senate at any time. Both actions are good indications that the leadership expects to bring the bill up for debate quickly. Placing the bill on the calendar makes it slightly more available, since only a simple legislative motion is required to take a bill from the desk.

Each day's Congressional Record, published the day after the session, includes a sequential list of bills introduced in each Chamber that day, including information about their disposition. The Record may also contain introductory statements by the bills' sponsors explaining their proposals and, sometimes, including the legislative language. Further explanation of the bill may also be found in a "Dear Colleague" letter.

Tip: It takes the Government Publishing Office (GPO) several days to print the official copy of the bill text. The bill print includes the bill number, the sponsor and cosponsors, committee referral, and the text of the proposed legislation. Since all online services use the tapes produced by the GPO when it prints a bill, the official text will not be online until the GPO bill print is available.

Tip: To locate the text of a recently introduced but not yet printed bill, be sure to check for any statements by the bill's sponsor or cosponsors in the Congressional Record. The Record does not generally include the text of every bill introduced, but it often contains text for Senate bills (as part of the sponsor's introductory statement), and occasionally includes the text of House bills. Even if the Record does not contain the bill text, it might have a section-by-section analysis of the bill as part of the sponsor's or cosponsor's statement.

Stage 3: The Bill Goes to Committee  

Committee Action

The committee chair decides where the bill goes next, if he of she feels it requires further action. The political agenda of the majority party and the committee chair, as well as the committee's rules , all come into play at this point. The committee chair can refer the bill to one or more subcommittees based on their jurisdictions as listed in the committee rules, or the chair can hold the bill at the full committee level and not refer it to a subcommittee. Holding the bill at full committee level means one of two things: either the bill will be acted on quickly or it is being suppressed and will die from neglect.

Tip: This is one of the stages where things can get tricky. A committee isn't required to act on measures referred to it; neither is a subcommittee. It only takes one subcommittee or committee to trip up a bill's progress, and it can happen without any visible activity. For example, if the leadership decides the bill does not fit within its overall agenda, a decision not to act will "kill" the bill just as effectively as a vote against it. The only way for a member to get the bill out of the committee should this happen is to use a discharge petition.

Hearings

One of the standard activities that committees undertake with legislation is to hold a hearing on the proposed legislation. If the chair decides to schedule a hearing on a bill, it can be held by either the subcommittee or the full committee. If a subcommittee holds a hearing on a bill, the full committee generally does not repeat the process. If the leadership of a subcommittee or the full committee decides to ignore the bill by not holding hearings, the bill is effectively killed.

The chair invites witnesses to appear at hearings to testify on the subject, but only at investigative hearings do witnesses testify under oath. Testimony at a legislative hearing or at an oversight hearing is not sworn testimony and often consists of political posturing. The Administration almost always is invited to send witnesses (usually high-ranking officials from the agency that would be responsible for implementing the bill). The bill's sponsor or most important co-sponsor(s) are expected to appear to defend their proposed legislation. Other invited witnesses can include lobbyists from industry, public interest groups, or local governments that might be affected by the proposal. Private citizens interested in or knowledgeable about an issue also may be invited to appear at the hearing. Those not asked to appear before the committee can submit written statements that will be included in the hearing record.

Tip: Material submitted for the hearing record frequently appears in an appendix at the end of the official transcript printed by the GPO and is available in the CIS microfiche collection and the Congressional Hearings Digital Collection. Often not specifically discussed during the hearing itself, material contained in the appendix can contain useful information.

Witnesses' prepared statements, as well as the verbal portion of the hearing (including the question-and-answer session), are recorded and transcribed by several commercial services and are available on ProQuest® Congressional within a few days of the hearing. The official transcript is printed and made available by the Government Printing Office several months to years after the hearing occurs; these also can be found in the CIS microfiche collection.

Tip: Unless the hearing was held as part of an investigation, any testimony by witnesses is not considered sworn testimony as it would be in a court case. Remember to take witness bias into account when looking at legislative or oversight hearing transcripts.

Occasionally, a committee will request an investigation of an issue or a recompilation of information about a problem. These studies on a particular issue may be done by a committee's staff or are requested from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the Library of Congress and are frequently issued as committee prints. Committee prints are distributed by the GPO and can be found in the CIS microfiche collection and in ProQuest Congressional.

Markup

Once past the hearings stage, the bill faces its markup. A markup session is when a subcommittee or committee considers the bill, possibly amending it, and then either accepts or rejects it. If accepted, either with or without amendments, the bill proceeds to the next stage of the process. If rejected, it expires.

Both the subcommittee and the full committee consider and mark up the bill. The only difference between the two sessions is that a subcommittee markup generally does not result in either an official bill print or a report. If approved by the subcommittee, the bill is "forwarded" (not to be confused with "reported") to the full committee, usually without further explanation, and the bill is not officially printed. If the bill is approved in markup by the full committee, the committee orders the bill reported, the committee explains its decisions in a written report that accompanies the bill text, and the bill and the report are filed in the Chamber.

Since the bill is not officially "reported" from a subcommittee, there is no "report" and there will not be an official (Government Printing Office-printed) version of the text of the bill as marked up/modified/amended by the subcommittee. However, if the bill was amended or changed substantially by the subcommittee, the subcommittee chairperson and/or the ranking member may introduce the modified text as a clean bill, which is given a new number in sequence with all the other newly introduced bills.

Tip: If the bill you were following suddenly seems to stop moving soon after a positive subcommittee or committee action, check for a bill on the same topic introduced by the chair within a few days of that action. Chances are that this is the bill you were following as amended by the subcommittee or committee. Check also for statements about the bill topic in the Congressional Record for the few days immediately after action was scheduled to occur that might confirm the existence of this "new" bill.

Stage 4: The Committee Votes to Report the Bill  

Vote to Report Bill

When a full committee orders a bill reported, a few steps must be taken that will result in another version of the bill, as well as a committee report, being printed. One step is the writing of the report, which can take weeks or even months, and the filing of the report with the clerk of the full Chamber (House or Senate). Until it is officially filed, neither the bill text nor the committee report can be printed by the GPO but will be available on ProQuest® Congressional as they are released by the GPO.

Tip: Not every bill ordered reported makes it to this stage. If the report isn't written and filed, the bill dies just as if it had not been ordered reported at all.

A reported bill generally is printed only after all the committees to which it was referred have ordered it reported. Reported bills printed by the GPO will be available at the same time on ProQuest Congressional. The printed version may contain text that has been struck through, indicating language that has been removed by the committee. If the bill has been reported by more than one committee, the printed version can have both stricken text as well as text in different type fonts, to differentiate between each committee's amendments. Online services have adopted assorted conventions to represent the various type fonts or stricken text of a printed bill. In ProQuest Congressional, additions to bill text are shown by an asterisk (*) at the beginning and end of each line; deletions of text are noted by squared brackets [ ] at the beginning and end of each line.

Tip: If the bill has been referred to more than one committee, they all go through the same process, with each committee issuing its own report. However, the various committee versions are bundled into only one bill print.

Report

The report is printed within a few days of being filed, and is available on ProQuest Congressional as soon as it is printed. A report can contain a discussion of the committee's recommendations, a history of legislative actions on the bill up to the time it was reported, and minority or dissenting views on the reported bill from committee members.

It can also contain bill language in two forms: text of the bill as amended and reported (appears at the beginning of the report), and text of the law as it would appear if the bill is enacted as reported (appears at the end of the printed report). This can be confusing when the report is viewed in electronic format. If you see bill language in a report online, be sure you know where you are in the report so you know which type of text you are viewing.

Once the report has been filed, the bill is available for consideration by the full Chamber. The majority party leadership decides when, or even if, to bring it before the full Chamber for debate, based on their political agenda and estimates about the bill's likely success. They are not required to schedule debate on any bill that has been reported.

Stage 5: The Bill Goes to the Floor  

Floor Action

At this point, the path a bill takes depends on whether it is in the House or the Senate. In both Chambers of Congress, the bill will come up for debate, amendments, including riders, can be offered, and a final vote taken. Floor debate in either Chamber is reported in the Congressional Record and is available on ProQuest® Congressional the day after the debate occurred.

Senate Floor Activity

In the 100-Member Senate, the reported bill is placed on the calendar and made available for debate. The ground rules for debate in this smaller Chamber are not restrictive and the smaller size of the Senate makes debate more manageable than in the larger House. One form of restriction on debate is reached when the leadership negotiates a unanimous consent agreement that sets specific time limits on the debate. Another restriction occurs when a Senator offers a motion to table (which is not debatable and stops debate on whatever was being discussed).

Unless a Senator objects, any Senator can speak as long as they want. A Senator speaking for a long time in order to block consideration of a motion or a piece of legislation is filibustering. The Senate must vote to invoke cloture to stop a filibuster. The mere threat of a filibuster often is enough to block Senate action on a bill.

House Floor Activity

The much larger House needs to take additional steps before it can consider the reported legislation. Without stringent limitations, debate in the 435-Member House of Representatives would be chaotic. One such limitation involves sending the bill to the House Committee on Rules. The committee "reports out" a separate resolution (H.Res.) setting time limits for debate on the bill. This resolution, known as the bill's rule for consideration, can limit the number of amendments offered to the bill, or even specify which amendments may be offered.

Another limitation is the use of the House's Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union (also known as the Committee of the Whole). Although every Member of the House is a member of this committee, its rules are less restrictive, and designed to speed up operations. For example, while 218 Members constitute a quorum in the House itself, only 100 Members (an easier number to gather on short notice) are required for a quorum in the Committee of the Whole. Certain obstructive motions that are permitted in the House are not permitted in the Committee of the Whole.

Other alternatives to the use of a "rule" are the motion to suspend the rules and pass a bill, which limits debate on the bill to 40 minutes and does not allow for amendments, or a unanimous consent request. The latter is a motion requesting unanimous agreement for the bill to pass. This means the bill will pass only if there is no objection; there is no opportunity for debate or amendment. The danger with using this approach is that it only takes one Member to object and stop the bill.

Finally, the House requires that amendments offered must be germane to the bill. A single Member of the House can object to an amendment being considered if it isn't germane to the bill.

Stage 6: The Bill Goes to Conference  

Resolving Differences Between the House and Senate Versions

Once a Chamber has passed its version of a bill, the measure is referred to the other Chamber. At this point, the bill is officially an Act. The second Chamber can either:

  • Accept the first Chamber's bill without changes and send it to the President, or
  • Amend the bill, perhaps with text of its own bill should there be a companion or similar bill in process, and return the bill to the first Chamber.

The first Chamber must then decide whether to:

  • Accept the second Chamber's amendment and send the bill to the President;
  • Amend the second Chamber's amendment and return the bill to the first Chamber for approval of the amendment or for further amending; or
  • Insist on its original language and request a conference to resolve the differences between the two versions of the bill.

Most differences are resolved through the first two methods and can be tracked using the Congressional Record. Less than one-eighth of measures considered in any given Congress require a conference.

Conference Committee

Should a conference be requested and agreed to, the leadership in both Chambers appoints conferees to meet in conference. Conferees usually come from the Chamber's committee with jurisdiction over the original bill, although someone who successfully offered a major amendment to the bill also might be appointed a conferee. The conferees negotiate a resolution of the differences in the two versions of the bill, producing a compromise version that must be accepted without change by both Chambers before it can be sent to the President.

Conference Report

The conference report is the product of successful negotiations in the conference committee. The report is printed both as a House Report and also in the Congressional Record (the only type of report that can be found in the Record) for the date the report was filed. Both Chambers must vote to accept the conference report as submitted (that is, without amendment) before the bill can be sent to the President.

Tip: A conference report usually contains the bill text compromise and a statement of the managers discussing the two versions and the agreements reached.

Stage 7: The President Signs the Bill  

After receiving a bill passed by Congress, the President has 10 days, excluding Sundays and holidays, to decide the measure's fate. The President can:

If the President vetoes the legislation, it is returned to Congress. Congress then either accepts the veto or tries to override it. Any successful challenge to the veto requires two-thirds of both Chambers present and voting to override. If one Chamber sustains the veto, the bill is dead. If the President does not act on the bill while Congress is still in session, the bill becomes law without the President's signature. If the President ignores it and the Congress has adjourned sine die (final adjournment), the bill has been pocket vetoed.

If the President makes a statement when signing or vetoing a bill, the text appears in the Compilation of Presidential Documents. The message the President sends to Congress when vetoing a bill is printed in the Congressional Record, and occasionally is printed as a House Document.

Stage 8: The Law is Printed and Codified  

The text of the law is printed by the GPO first in pamphlet form; this is known as a slip law. Slip laws also are available on ProQuest® Congressional. The GPO organizes each year's slip laws chronologically and prints them in the Statutes at Large.

The United States Code is the official (GPO-published) subject-organized "consolidation and compilation of all the general and permanent laws of the United States" in effect at the time of printing. The phrase "general and permanent laws" explains why, for example, you won't find an appropriation law in the Code it is neither general nor permanent.

Tip: The two differences between the Statutes at Large and the United States Code are their organization (chronological versus subject) and their coverage (all laws enacted versus only "general and permanent" laws).

ProQuest Congressional provides the comparable, commercially published version of the Code (the United States Code Service) that includes, in addition to the laws themselves, annotations to court cases interpreting the laws.

Stage 9: The Law is Implemented and Enforced  

Regulatory Activity

The legislative process does not stop once a bill becomes law. Many laws must be put into effect, or implemented, by an agency of the executive branch. Through a delegation of his authority, the President makes an agency responsible for implementing the law. The agency then can issue administrative regulations explaining how it intends to put the law into effect and/or what a citizen must do to comply with the law.

Not surprisingly, the political agenda of the Administration influences this process, particularly when Congress is controlled by a different party than that of the executive branch. The President, as head of the executive branch, is not required to implement any law; one way to slow the process of implementation is not to promulgate regulations.

The regulatory process is fairly straightforward compared to the legislative process. It is governed by one law, the "Administrative Procedure Act of 1946", and there is only one official source in which all phases of the regulatory process are reported the daily Federal Register. There are many steps along the regulatory process.

  • An agency can, but is not required to, issue an "advance notice of proposed rule making" (ANPRM), discussing its intention to issue a regulation. This discussion may include a general summary of the agency's proposal, but will not include specific language.
  • Following the advance notice or as a first step in the regulatory promulgation process, an agency then publishes a "notice of proposed rule making" (NPRM), containing the proposed rule and requesting comments.
  • After reviewing the comments received, the agency may, but is not required to, issue a "final rule making". The preamble to the final rule in the Federal Register often includes a summary or analysis of the comments received during the comment period.

Regulations in effect are codified annually and issued quarterly in the subject-organized Code of Federal Regulations available on ProQuest® Congressional.