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Under the chairmanship of George Washington, the Constitutional Convention established a strong federal government in 1871. Lawmaking powers were vested in a national congress.

Article I of the Constitution gave “all legislative powers” to Congress, and specified that laws could originate either in the House or the Senate. The only exception was revenue bills, which had to originate in the House.

The assembled statesmen went on to outline briefly the procedure for making laws. Either a senator or a representative could introduce a bill. Both houses of Congress would then have to vote on it. The president would then sign the bill into law—or veto it. In the case of a veto, a two-thirds vote from both the House and the Senate could override it.

But this simple system was subtly modified by a whole range of unwritten rules, which became part of the legislative process. One example is the creation of the committee system in both the House and the Senate to examine specific subjects. This system was created because when the Senate first met in 1789 it became clear that Congress, as a whole could not deal thoroughly with every issue. By the time of the Third Congress, the committee system was firmly established. There were 300 committees to speed the flow of legislation. By the end of the 19th century the committee system was so important that Woodrow Wilson observed, “Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.”

Among the chief duties of Congress is the writing of federal criminal laws and those laws regulating the operation of government. Congress has the sole authority to levy federal taxes and to decide how those revenues will be spent. However, the president must sign a bill in order for it to become law. If the president chooses to veto legislation by withholding his signature, the bill dies unless the veto is overridden by a two-thirds majority vote of both the House and the Senate. In addition, federal courts have authority to interpret laws passed by Congress, and if these courts find that a law conflicts with the Constitution, they can invalidate it.

Complaints about Congress are as old as the country. Critics accuse it of being timid, slow, vain, self-serving and weak under pressure. Congress usually is slow to act on controversial issues. Wide diversity in political views and regional interests coupled with political caution keep the majority of lawmakers away from the forefront of change. Bit it should not be forgotten that the job of the nation’s lawmakers is immense. During a two-year session, lawmakers will wade through more than 12,000 bills on issues intricate and complex. Our program “How a Bill Becomes a Law” takes a look at this process.


“How a Bill Becomes a Law,” explains some of the major steps that must be taken in the nation’s lawmaking process. These steps include:

INTRODUCTION OF THE BILL: Every bill, including those drawn up by the executive branch of government, must be introduced in either the House or the Senate by a member of that body.

REFERRAL TO COMMITTEE: After a bill is introduced in either the House or the Senate, or both, it is referred to a committee, which may hold hearings or may assign the bill to subcommittee for study.

PUBLIC HEARINGS: On major legislation that has significant backing, the committee or one of its subcommittees will hold hearings to receive.

MARK UP: After public hearings have been held the committee meets to discuss, revise and vote on the bill. A committee can defeat a bill, hold up action on a bill for weeks, amend it beyond recognition, or speed its way through the legislative process. The vast majority of the more than 10,000 bill that are introduced in Congress each year die in committee for lack of support.

CALENDAR: In the House, if a bill is reported favorably out of committee, it is placed on one of several calendars, or lists of business. The main House calendars are: The Union calendar, for bills dealing with revenue appropriations or federal property; the House Calendar, for bills that do not appropriate money or raise revenue, such as bills involving civil rights new government agencies or impeachment; the Private Calendar for bills dealing with individuals such as a bill concerning someone’s immigration or naturalization or a claim against the government. The Senate has a single calendar. In the House a bill must generally clear the Rules Committee before it can be debated. In the Senate a bill may be called up in order by unanimous consent or by a majority vote.

RULES COMMITTEE (HOUSE ONLY): The power for deciding the flow of business in the House is vested in the Rules Committee. In the normal course of events a bill does not come up for action on the floor without a rule from the Rules Committee. By failing to act or by refusing to grant a rule, the Rules Committee can veto a bill. Furthermore, the rule granted gives the conditions under which a bill will be discussed. A special rule, for example, may prohibit amendments altogether or provide that only members of the committee reporting the bill may offer amendments. The rule also sets the length of debate. There is no Rules Committee in the Senate. The Senate’s majority leader has the power to determine that body’s agenda.

DEBATE ON THE FLOOR: Action on bills on the floor of the House and the Senate is controlled by a complicated set of rules and customs. The House has relatively tight restrictions on debate. However, in considering bills on the Private Calendar and those on the Union Calendar the House may sit as a Committee of the Whole. This speeds action on the many private bills—which deal with only one person—as well as on revenue and appropriations bills. Attendance of 100 members is then enough for action. The Committee of the Whole can reject or approve a bill by a majority vote. But the Committee of the Whole’s action can then be overt-turned by the House in a regular session. By sitting as a Committee of the Whole, the House is able to operate more informally and more quickly than under its regular rules. Except when the House sits as a Committee of the Whole, a majority of members must be present for a quorum. Unlike the House, the Senate does not place a time limit on debate. Once a senator has gained the floor, he or she has the right to go on talking until he or she relinquishes it voluntarily or through exhaustion.

FILIBUSTERING (SENATE ONLY): The right to unlimited debate in the Senate may be used by a small group of senators to filibuster, or delay, the proceedings of the Senate in order to prevent a vote. If three-fifths of the total number of elected senators votes for cloture, or closure, no senator may speak for more than one hour. Then the motion before the Senate must be brought to a vote.

AMENDMENTS: Under normal rules any member may propose amendments to a bill while it is under debate in the House or the Senate. These amendments become part of the bill only if approved.

VOTING: In both houses of Congress at least a majority of the members must vote in favor of a bill for it to pass that House. In practice a majority of those voting is considered sufficient unless a member objects.

APPROVAL-DISAPPROVAL: A bill that has passed one house is sent to the other house, where the process of approval-disapproval begins again. If a bill is passed with any changes it must go back to the first house. If the bill is passed without any changes it goes to the president.

CONFERENCE COMMITTEE: If a bill is passed by one house it is sent to the other chamber which may pass the bill as is, send it to committee or ignore it an d come up with its own version of the legislation. In there are major differences in the final bill passed by each house, one house may ask for a conference committee. This committee is formed with half its members chosen from each house. If both houses approve, the final version is signed by the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate and sent on to president.

PRESIDENTIAL ACTION: After passing both houses of Congress, the bill goes to the president. The president can allow the bill to become law with his approval—by signing it—or without his approval—by not acting on it for 10 days, not including Sundays, provided Congress remains in session throughout the period. The president can also veto or reject the bill directly—by returning the bill to the house that originated it with the message giving the reason for rejecting it—or indirectly—by pocket veto, by not acting it for 10 days, not including Sundays, provided congress adjourns during that time. Many times the president will sign the bill. But the bill might still become law if the president vetoes it because Congress can override a direct veto by a two-thirds majority vote on both houses.

These days, almost everything Congress wants to do by legislation requires funding. So even if a bill passes it must go through the process again to secure appropriations. Congress may go through the entire process of authorizing a program, and then fail to appropriate money to implement it, or appropriate so little money that what was authorized cannot be carried out.

The House and the Senate have many aspects in common, including the committee structure and the dispersion of power. The differences that exist between the two houses have arisen from the great differences in their sizes. Because the Senate has only 100 members as compared to 435 in the House, The Senate’s procedures are more informal, and more time may be afforded for debate. In the House, use of an electronic voting device has helped to speed legislation, along with other procedures that have evolved over the years: immediate action may be taken by unanimous consent of the members on the floor; ordinary rules may be suspended by a two-thirds vote; the House may sit as a Committee of the Whole.

There are numerous ways to delay and obstruct the passage of a bill. Whether good or bad, a bill can be delayed by any one of the following: 1) the chairperson of a House subcommittee; 2) a House committee; 3) the House Rules Committee; 4) the chairperson of the Senate subcommittee; 5) the Senate committee; 6) the majority of the Senate; 7) 41 members of the Senate in the event of a filibuster; 8) the House-Senate conference committee if the two houses of Congress disagree; 9) the president. Usually these tactics do not postpone indefinitely a bill that has broad national support. But only one out of every 20 bills introduced in Congress each session survives this process and becomes law.