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How a Bill Becomes a Law: Formal Process

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  • 0:41 Drafting, Proposal,…
  • 2:06 Committee Assignment
  • 2:59 Report, Debate, Vote…
  • 4:02 Differences
  • 4:47 Presidential Approval
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

In this lesson, we will review the process of how a bill becomes a law. We will take a closer look at what steps have to be taken, how a bill is changed and how it is signed into law.

Bills Start as Ideas

A bill always begins with an idea. A legislator, be it a Representative in the House of Representatives or a Senator, will get an idea for a new law. This idea may have been emailed to him from one of his constituents - a person like you or me! Or this idea may have been a brainstorm of his political party.

Once he has this idea, he may tell other legislators about his idea and see if they would like to sponsor it. An example of such an idea for a bill would be a law that grants immigrants who are not naturalized, or full citizens yet, the right to vote.

Drafting a Bill

After the legislator thinks of an idea and finds support, the next step is to actually draft the bill. The legislator will find people to help him research and write the bill. They would come up with the processes that would be necessary, the way it would be done and would put it together into the proper report to be presented.

Proposal of the Bill

Once the bill is drafted, then the bill needs a sponsor. The legislator will talk with other legislators in the hopes of finding support for it. In our case, we would go and talk with other legislators and tell them our ideas and about our bill. Hopefully, they would agree to sponsor it and support it.

Introduction of the Bill

Once drafted and sponsored, the bill is then filed by the legislator in his own chamber - whether that be the House of Representatives or the Senate. Let's assume that our bill for immigrant voting is introduced into the House of Representatives. It is placed in the hopper, which is a special box on the side of the clerk's desk. It is eventually removed from the hopper and assigned a number. Our well-drafted bill is then read in its entirety to the whole House all at once.

If a bill is introduced in the Senate, then the legislator needs to be called on by chamber leadership to introduce the bill. It is then assigned a number and printed for the legislators.

Committee Assignment

Once the bill has its number, it is referred to committee. The committee members are experts in all sorts of different fields. In our example of immigrant voting, when it is sent to a committee for review, they read it and discuss the bill. They do some research into the voting topic and discuss potential issues.

The committee has the ability to schedule the bill for hearing. In our case, anyone that has an interest in our bill may speak at the hearing (either for or against it.) So, there may be people at the hearing who are advocates of immigrants who are not citizens, such as their mentors. Or there may be law enforcement who speak against it who may think it is a bad idea. Both of these parties are given leave to speak. They then revise the bill before voting on whether or not to send the bill back to the chamber for voting.

Report and Debate

If the committee has voted for the bill to move forward, it is reported, or sent back to the chamber floor, and is ready to be debated. When the bill is debated, legislators discuss the pros and cons of the bill. Any legislator has the ability to suggest amendments, or additions or changes to the bill.

In our case, a legislator may suggest that only immigrants that have been in the country for five years may vote. Or another legislator may suggest that immigrants who are over a certain age may vote. Once all of the changes have been made, then the bill is ready to be voted on.

Vote and Transfer

In order for a bill to be approved, it must be supported by a majority of the legislators. If it is, then it moves to the other chamber. In other words, if the bill originated in the House of Representatives, and has gone through the whole process, then it is transferred over to the Senate. The exact same steps (reading, committee, etc.) are held in the other chamber.

Differences

If the two chambers think that different things should be added or deleted from a bill, then a conference committee is created. This committee consists of members of each of the chambers that meet to work out the differences. Once the committee agrees on the bill, then they prepare a report that is submitted to each chamber. The report is then voted on by both chambers.

In our example, let's say that the conference committee met on the issue of immigrants needing to be in the country five years before they can vote. The committee would hash out the issues and then come to a consensus, or agreement on language that they are all happy with. Once this is done, then they rewrite it into a report that is then approved by both chambers.

Presidential Approval

Once the report is approved by both chambers, or the bill is passed without report by both chambers, then it is sent to the President of the United States for signature. If the bill is signed by the President, or if he doesn't sign it for ten days while Congress is in session, then it becomes a law! If it is not signed by the President and Congress adjourns within the ten days, then it does not become a law and is called a pocket veto. If the President vetoes the bill and sends it back, then it can still become a law if two-thirds of each chamber vote to override the veto.

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