How a bill becomes a law

Any member of the House of Representatives or the Senate may introduce a bill that can become law. A bill is assigned a number (such as H.R.1 or S.1, depending on the chamber of its origin), labeled with the sponsor's name and published. Most bills will have co-sponsors and as a general rule, the more co-sponsors the better. Bills usually have names which have been carefully crafted to convey the best 'spin.'


Steps to becoming a law

Referral to committee: A bill is referred to standing committee in House or Senate. The referral is determined by which committee, or committees, has jurisdiction over the issues addressed in the bill.
Committee action: When a bill reaches a committee, it is placed on the committee’s calendar. If the committee chairperson decides not to hear a bill, or act upon it in some other way, it is the equivalent of killing it.
Subcommittee review: Often, bills are referred to a subcommittee. Hearings held at the subcommittee or committee level allow the views of the executive branch, other public officials, experts, supporters and opponents to be put on the record.
Mark up: After hearings are held, the subcommittee may 'mark up' the bill (make changes or add amendments) prior to recommending it to the full committee. If a subcommittee votes not to report the bill to the full committee, the bill dies.
Committee action: After receiving the subcommittee?s report on the bill, the full committee can conduct further hearings, or it can vote and 'order the bill reported' to the respective chamber where the bill originated: House or Senate.
Written report: After the bill is reported, committee staff prepares a report on the bill describing the intent and scope of the legislation.
Scheduling floor action: The bill is placed in chronological order on a calendar. The House keeps several legislative calendars, and the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader largely determine if, when and in what order bills come before the House. In the Senate, there is only one legislative calendar.
Debate: When a bill reaches the floor of the House or Senate, the chamber must vote on the rules determining the amount of time allocated for debate on the bill.
Voting: After debate and approval of any amendments, the chamber votes. Votes may be recorded electronically or by voice vote. A recorded or 'roll call' vote contains the names of members who vote for or against the bill, or who did not vote at all. A voice vote is a simple 'aye' or 'no' and the presiding officer in the chamber determines the result. If a bill is non-controversial, or has been reviewed sufficiently by each member of Congress before even reaching the floor, it can be voted on without scheduling any debate. This is called 'unanimous consent' or 'suspension of the rules.'
Referral: When the House or Senate passes a bill, it is referred to the other chamber which may approve the bill, reject it, ignore it or change it through the same committee or subcommittee action as described above.
Conference committee: If the opposite chamber only makes minor changes, the legislation goes back to the originating chamber for approval of the changes. However, if the bill has been significantly altered, a conference committee with members from both chambers is formed to reconcile the differences. If the conferees can reach an agreement, a conference report is prepared, if not, the bill dies.
Presidential action: After a bill has been passed in identical forms through the House and Senate (or reported out of a conference committee), it is sent to the President who may either sign it into law or veto (reject) it. If Congress is in session and the President takes no action, it automatically becomes law. If Congress has already adjourned its second session and the President takes no action, it is called a 'pocket veto' and the bill is rejected.
Overriding a veto: Congress may attempt to override a presidential veto, which requires a two-thirds majority roll call vote.


Additional details


Committee system

Membership on committees is split between the parties as determined by the majority party in each house. Committee members rank in order of their appointment to the full committee. The senior ranking member of the committee of the majority party is usually elected as Chairman or Chairwoman. The committee chair is very important to the legislative process since he or she determines the docket and order and assigns the bill to a subcommittee. Committees and subcommittees review proposed legislation, experts are consulted, feedback is obtained from government agencies, and public hearings are conducted to fully understand key issues on both sides.

After receiving a bill, the Speaker of the House or the Presiding Officer in the Senate submits the bill to the appropriate committee. Due to the high volume and complexity of its work, Congress divides its tasks between approximately 250 committees and sub-committees. The House and Senate each have their own committee system, which are similar. A bill may be divided and sent to more than one committee. Once the committee has reviewed the bill, it is voted on by the committee. If the committee passes the bill, it then holds a “mark-up” session where revisions are implemented. If amendments are substantial, the bill is then rewritten, and a “clean bill” is sent to the House or Senate in lieu of the original version. Before conducting a final vote, the House or Senate then reviews all changes made by the committee.

Reporting a bill

After a bill is reported, the committee provides the originating chamber with a statement detailing why they favor or disfavor the bill and defending any amendments. The bill is then placed on the calendarThe Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate decide which bills will make it to their respective chamber floors and in what order they will receive attention. The party control of the House or Senate is very important in determining the legislative agenda. Once the schedule is set, the bill is debated. In the House, the Rules Committee decides the limits of debate, and there must be a quorum (218 members present) to vote. In the Senate, debate is unlimited, and sometimes even a single member may block legislation by conducting a “filibuster” so that debate lasts so long that the bill doesn't pass. Fifty-one senators must vote to close debate in order to vote on a bill.


Once debate is finished, voting can begin. Passage requires a simple majority of a quorum. Once a bill has passed either the House or Senate, it is then sent to the other chamber to be voted on, with the exception that the other chamber is already debating a similar bill. A bill must pass in both the House and Senate, before it can be sent to the president and signed into law.

A bill that has not been passed by both chambers before the end of the two-year congressional term is considered dead and has to be re-introduced in the next Congress. If the House and Senate approve two similar but separate bills, the two bills are sent to a conference committee, made up of senior members of both chambers (chosen by leadership for each such occurrence) who work to reach a compromise bill. The conference committee then writes a report on the final version; this is then voted on by both chambers. If the report is passed, the bill is sent to the president for final review.

Becoming a law

Once the president receives the bill, he or she has two options: sign the bill into law or veto the bill. With the president’s signature, the bill becomes law. If the president vetoes a bill, he sends it back to the original chamber with an explanation for his veto. Congress can override a veto with a two-thirds vote majority in both chambers, thus the bill becomes law.

The Constitution allows the president to have ten days to review a bill. If the president has not had time to review the bill and Congress adjourns within ten days after the bill reaches the president, the bill is vetoed automatically. This is called a “pocket veto.” However, if the president has not signed the bill after ten days and Congress hasn’t adjourned, it becomes law without his signature.

How does a bill become a law in your state?

Click on each state of interest to see the specific process for how a bill becomes a law in that state.