View the Steps to Learn How a Bill Becomes a Law
The following outlines the path that legislation follows on its way to becoming law:
Introduction of Bill
A member of Congress introduces a new piece of legislation or bill. It can be introduced in either the House of Representatives (House) or Senate or both, except that all appropriations or funding bills start in the House. A bill number is assigned (S. 1, for instance, for the first Senate bill introduced; or H.R. 50 for the fiftieth bill introduced in the House).
Then the bill goes to the appropriate committee, based on the issue addressed, for consideration. That committee refers the bill to a specific subcommittee, where a hearing is often held and interested parties can testify for and against the bill. After the hearing, a mark-up occurs where amendments are debated and voted on to revise the original bill. The bill then is voted out of the subcommittee to the full committee, where more hearings and another mark-up may take place. The committee votes to decide if the bill will be "reported out” of the committee for consideration by the entire legislative body.
Once the bill is reported out of the committee, the process differs somewhat in the House and Senate. In the House, the bill goes to the Rules Committee, where rules are given to the legislation that regulate time limits for debate and determine whether all members of the House can offer amendments. In the Senate, the bill moves from committee passage to floor debate.
The speaker of the house and the senate majority leader hold great power due to their responsibility for scheduling floor debate. A common tactic for “killing” a bill is to delay scheduling of the bill so that it may not be voted on. After the bill is scheduled, floor debate occurs and amendments may be offered (if allowed by the rule in the House). The bill is then voted on for final passage. If it passes, the same process occurs in the other chamber.
The legislation passed individually by the House and Senate usually differs due to the amendments offered in the committees and on the floor. Each chamber’s version must go to a conference committee made up of members from both chambers in order to work out the differences. A conference report is issued which contains the bill with all agreed upon compromises. Both the full House and the Senate then must vote on the conference report. If the conference report passes …
The Bill Becomes Law or is Vetoed
The bill is sent to the president for signature so that the bill can become a law. If the president does not agree with the bill, it can be vetoed and returned to Congress. The bill dies unless the required two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate overrides the veto.
What Are Appropriations and Authorizations?
All federal programs that involve funding have to go through two distinct processes—authorization and appropriation.
An authorization bill establishes the details of the program, its reporting requirements, its duration, and the maximum amount of money that is allowed to be spent on the program. Typically programs are authorized for many years and only need to be reexamined when the authorization expires.
A separate appropriation bill actually provides the annual funds for a program. An appropriation must be passed every year that a program is authorized. It is essentially like writing a yearly check for the program. The amount of money appropriated must be within the parameters set out by the authorization. For instance, if a program’s authorized level is $2 million, any given year’s appropriation could be between $0 and $2 million.
The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have a difficult task. When they decide appropriations for specific programs, they must take into account the budget parameters for federal programs agreed upon by the annual budget resolution that, in recent years, has been designed to lower the deficit. In other words, they do not have unlimited resources and must pick and choose carefully among different programs.