The step-by-step process through which an idea for change becomes the law is arduous, unpredictable, and subject to the procedural challenges that accompany congress. It may be hard to imagine, but even just introducing a piece of legislation is a major accomplishment for a lawmaker — and that doesn’t even factor in the process for moving the bill through Congress.
Step 1: Planting an Idea
First, lawmakers must become aware of and educated on an issue or concern. Although they spend a considerable amount of time on their home turf, it’s largely impossible for them to truly have a pulse on all of the critical issues facing their constituents without being proactively approached.
They are often motivated to act after meetings with their constituents, organizations, through correspondence with an agency, and various other channels that keep them informed about the issues and policies that matter most for everyday people.
Step 2: Crafting a Bill
To begin the process, lawmakers and their staff work closely to identify the policy they wish to enact, change, or revoke in their bill — and then put it down on paper. They work with legislative experts to ensure that the actions in their bill are viable and legal. They will also recruit sponsorship from other lawmakers and endorsements from relevant stakeholders such as trade associations or non-profit organizations — in fact, efforts to garner support for a bill will continue throughout the entire lawmaking process.
More and more, Members are likely to only expend time and resources on introducing a bill on a topic for which they feel truly compelled to act. For most, this means serving on a committee that would be tasked with taking up the bill or having a personal connection to the issue at hand.
Step 3: Introducing a Bill
Once the bill language is prepared, the lawmaker formally introduces the bill and it will be officially posted to the Congressional Record. The lawmaker’s press and media department will usually release a public statement and the office will likely begin to receive questions, comments, critique, or requests for further co-sponsorships.
After this point, non-sponsoring Members will be interested in how the bill is publicly perceived and will begin to track to what degree they are being lobbied heavily on the bill from stakeholders, particularly those within their state. This may be the point when they assess whether or not to become co-sponsors of the bill.
Step 4: Moving a Bill Through Committee
Every bill that is introduced is assigned to a committee based on the topic area it covers. Committees are made up of several Members that are tasked with discussing and changing legislation (or “marking it up”) before it can be considered by the entire body of Representatives or Senators. If the committee takes up consideration of the bill, votes, and approves it — the bill will move onto the floor for general debate and consideration.
The majority of bills will only be referred to their committees, but not taken up for further consideration. In fact, since January 2015 alone, more than 10,000 bills have been introduced. Given the sheer volume of bills introduced each year, the substantial number of procedures that must be followed before the bill receives a vote, and specific priorities of the Committee Chair — who decides which bills are actually considered before the Committee — most bills do not progress through this step of the standard legislative process.
Voting for the Bill and Sending it Forward
If a bill has made it to either the House or Senate floors for consideration, members will be given a certain amount of time to debate and offer their own changes to the bill. Once changes to the bill are agreed upon, the body of members votes. Then, if the bill passes, it will move to the other chamber of Congress to be considered.
For example, if it originates in the Senate, it will move to the House next. Then, if the House only has minor changes to the bill, it will go back to the Senate and typically the changes are quickly agreed to. However, if major changes are proposed, a committee of both House and Senate members come together, known as a “conference committee” to reconcile their differences more thoroughly.
This step requires a great deal of collaboration and compromise to push the legislation over the finish line. At this point, both bodies of Congress have put their time into considering the legislation, often making it more difficult to address inconsistencies and changes between the House and Senate versions.
Step 6: Approval of the Bill
Once a bill has been passed through both the House and Senate, or the conference committee comes to an agreement on the language of the bill, it will be sent to the President. He will either veto — or reject the bill — or sign it into public law.
If the President decides to veto a bill — that veto must be overridden by a two-thirds majority of members in both the House and the Senate. However, given the partisan divide and the numbers necessary to gain a two-thirds vote, the vast majority of vetoes are not ultimately overridden.