How a Bill Becomes a Law: The Legislative Process

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The following describes how a bill in the U.S. Congress goes through the legislative process.  Most states will have similar models. A bill can begin the process in either the House of Representatives or the Senate (although all tax bills are required to be introduced in the House).

1. Introduction of Bills

Once a legislator sees a need to introduce legislation, his or her staff will write the legislative language. In the House, the bill is distributed to the Clerk of the House.  In the Senate, the Senator must gain recognition of the Senate floor from the presiding officer and then announce the introduction of the bill.

The bill is then numbered and referred to the appropriate committee for consideration. Most bill prefixes will have either HR in the House or S in the Senate (e.g., H.R. 7, S.

476). There are other types of prefixes (e.g., HJ Res. For House Joint Resolution, S Con Res. for Senate Concurrent Resolution), but these types of prefixes are rare and used for legislation that affects the operations of Congress or proposes amendments to the Constitution.

2. The Committee Process

Nearly all bills are referred to the appropriate standing committee. Bills relating to charitable deductions and the oversight of charitable organizations are usually sent to the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees.

Bills generally receive the most scrutiny and analysis at the committee level, and this is where outside parties like charities can have the most impact on the bill. It is also where most bills stop in the legislative process. If the chair or a member of the committee is not interested in considering the bill, then it usually just languishes at the committee until the legislative session ends.

If there is interest in the bill, then the chair of the committee usually refers it to a subcommittee for analysis and study. Hearings are often scheduled to get the opinions of outside parties.  A subcommittee, after considering a bill, reports to the full committee its recommendations for future action on the legislation, including any proposed amendments.  However, a bill doesn’t have to be referred to a subcommittee and can be initially considered by the full committee.

A markup is a meeting of the committee where it literally “marks up” the bill and proposes amendments. Once all amendments have been considered, the committee votes on whether to recommend the bill to the full body (“ordering a bill reported”). If substantial amendments have been made, then often a “clean” bill is introduced (with a new bill number) that incorporates all of the changes.

3. Floor Action

Once a bill has been reported out from committee, it must be placed on a legislative calendar in order to receive consideration by the full body (either House or Senate). House and Senate floor action vary greatly.

In the House, debate is much more limited and controlled. For each bill that is considered on the House floor, the House Rules Committee passes a rule defining how debate will occur (how much time, how many amendments, etc). The full House must vote to accept the rule. Debate then begins, and afterwards, the House votes on the bill.

In the Senate, debate is much more open and is usually unlimited. Debate can only be halted if a three-fifths majority of the entire Senate agrees (a “cloture” vote). While in practice Senators often have working agreements on how long debate will last, debates on contentious issues can result in very dramatic cloture votes as one side seeks to “filibuster” (continue consideration so as to never have to vote on the bill) and the other seeks to end debate.

4. Action in the Second Body

Once a bill is approved by one body, it is sent to the other chamber. The second body can pass the bill as it stands, reject the bill, or send it through its own legislative process. Often, the second body will be working on its own version of the bill and will simply ignore the bill passed by the first body.

The second chamber may pass the bill “as is” or make only minor changes. If the other body agrees to the changes (if there are any), then the bill is sent to the President for his signature and enactment into law. However, if significant changes are made, or if both chambers pass two completely different versions of the same bill, then the legislation is referred to a conference committee.

5. Conference Committee

At a conference committee, senior members of the House and Senate work out the differences between two different versions of the same bill. These members (“conferees”) usually try to compromise to reach an agreement, but many bills have been stuck in conference as neither chamber wants to budge on its version of the legislation.

6. Final Action

Once a bill has been passed by the House and Senate in identical form, an enrolled bill is prepared in the chamber in which the legislation was first introduced. This enrolled version is signed by the Speaker of the House and president of the Senate, and then sent to the White House.

The President has several options. He can sign the bill and it becomes law. He can veto the bill by refusing to sign it and returning it to Congress within ten days with a message stating his reasons. The president can also decide not to act. If the ten days expires and Congress is in session, the bill becomes law. If Congress has adjourned before the ten days limit, and the president has not acted, it does not become law (a “pocket veto”).

Congress can attempt to override a vote, but it requires a two-thirds majority in both bodies.

7. Regulations

While not officially part of the legislative process, the development of regulations is a critical step in the creation of public policy that is often overlooked. Essentially, a regulation is how the executive branch of government decides how legislation will actually work.  After all, legislation is simply what Congress or your state legislature wants to happen. But what the legislative branch wants and what the executive branch actually does are not always the same thing.

After a bill is signed into law, the appropriate agency of the executive branch of government typically has a certain amount of time to develop regulations that will implement the law’s requirements. For charitable fundraising laws, it is usually the Secretary of State or Attorney General, depending upon the particular state. After initial regulations are introduced, interested parties have a certain amount of time to file comments, and often hearings are conducted. Final regulations are usually issued at that point, but if the issue is especially contentious, a second round of draft regulations might be issued.

The regulatory process is another opportunity for chapters to influence public policy. Legislation is often broad and does not always touch on all the details of a particular issue.  Thus, regulations have to be very thorough and complex, and often organizations can affect the language of regulations so as to increase or decrease the impact of a law. If the executive branch does not necessarily agree with what the legislative branch did, or has a dramatically different interpretation of the law, it can make for some very interesting regulations.

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