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Legislative Process

Congress: Legislative Process

Each Congress proposes thousands of new laws, but only a small percentage win the approval of both chambers and the president. At every stage of the lawmaking process, these proposals are amended, modified, and refined. To become law, a measure must make it through committee and floor debates, win the support of important interest groups, gain a majority of votes in the two chambers, and then win the president’s signature. (1)

In this Section about the Legislative Process: Legislative Process, Proposing New Laws, Legislative Committee System, Congress Influences (including Political Parties, President Influences, Interest Group Pressures and the

Legislative Process and Public Opinion) and Bills.

Legislative Process in Congress A to Z

According to “Legislative Process.” CQ Electronic Library, CQ’s Congress A to Z Online Edition, coaz4d-179-8940-501197. Originally published in Congress A to Z, 4th ed., edited by David R. Tarr and Ann O’Connor (Washington: CQ Press, 2003):

The procedures Congress uses to write the laws of the land are collectively knowng as the legislative process. Through this process the ideas of presidents, members of Congress, political parties, interest groups, and individual citizens are transformed into national policy. The lawmaking function as set forth by the Constitution is complicated and time-consuming. It is governed by detailed rules and procedures, as well as more than 200 years of customs and traditions.

To become law a proposal must be approved in identical form by both the Senate and the House of Representatives and signed by the president — or else, infrequently, approved by Congress over the president’s veto or allowed to become law without his signature during a session of Congress. Legislative proposals usually follow parallel paths through the two chambers of Congress. Bills are referred to committees for preliminary consideration, then debated, amended, and passed (or rejected) by the full House or Senate. The process is repeated in the other chamber. When the House and Senate pass different versions of a major bill, a temporary Senate-House conference committee normally is appointed to work out a compromise. Both chambers must approve the conferees’ changes before the bill can be sent to the president for signature.

Not surprisingly, relatively few bills make it through this complex process. In the 107th Congress (2001 — 2003) more than 9,000 bills and joint resolutions were introduced, but only 377 public laws were enacted.

Bills that are not passed die at the end of the two-year term of Congress in which they are introduced. They may be reintroduced in a later Congress.

A typical bill that survives the many roadblocks to enactment generally travels the route described in the remainder of this article.

Introducing Legislation

All legislation must be formally introduced by members of Congress, although members themselves do not originate most bills. Much of the legislation considered by Congress originates in the executive branch — the White House and federal agencies. This is especially true if Congress and the president are of the same political party. Special-interest organizations, such as trade unions or business associations, are another fertile source of legislation. There are many other sources as well, including Congress itself, state and local government officials, and ordinary citizens.

[# Legislation] is drafted in various forms. Bills originating in the House are designated “HR,” and resolutions are labeled “H J Res,” “H Con Res,” or “H Res,” depending on the type of resolution. Senate measures are designated “S,” “S J Res,” “S Con Res,” or “S Res.” Each measure carries a number showing the order in which it was introduced: “HR 1” or “S 1” would be the first bill introduced at the beginning of a new Congress. Many bills fall into one of two categories:

authorization bills, which establish or continue government programs or policies and set limits on how much money may be spent on them, and appropriations bills, which provide the actual funds to carry out authorized programs or policies or provide funds to operate government agencies.

Authorization bills may be valid for several years, but appropriations bills generally are valid for only one year.

Committee Action

Once a bill has been introduced by a member, it is almost always referred to a committee that has specialized knowledge of the subject matter. Bills that involve more than one subject may be referred to two or more committees, a practice known as multiple referral. Senators and representatives are far too busy to follow every bill that comes before Congress, and they cannot be experts in all the different subjects bills cover. They must rely on the committees to screen most of this legislation.

A bill usually faces the sharpest scrutiny in committee. It is here that most deliberation and rewriting are done. This is especially true in the House; in the Senate deliberation and revision by the full chamber sometimes are equally important in determining a measure’s final form.

Bills may be considered by the full committee initially or by a subcommittee. Sometimes the major review of a bill takes place at the subcommittee level, and the full committee simply endorses the subcommittee’s recommendations. But frequently the full committee will propose additional amendments to alter the proposal.

The committee or subcommittee generally holds hearings on legislation before taking further action on it. Comment is requested from administration officials and from federal bureaucrats who run the programs that might be affected by the bill. Heads of cabinet-level departments of the government testify on the most important proposals. Scholars and technical experts also may appear at hearings. Lobbying groups and private citizens may testify for or against the legislation Committee hearings help set the legislative agenda and shape its political tone. They are one of the most important forums for finding out what the public thinks about national problems and how to solve them. Hearings also may have an educational function. Members of Congress need political support for the actions they take, especially when controversial issues or remedies are involved. Hearings assist Congress in developing a consensus on proposed legislation.

After the hearings, committee members may meet to consider the provisions of the legislation in detail, a process known as marking up the bill. Sometimes bills are heavily amended — that is, revised — or entirely redrafted in committee. Votes may be taken on controversial amendments and, finally, on whether to approve the bill and recommend that the full House or Senate pass the measure.

When committee action has been completed, the panel prepares a written report describing the bill and its amendments, and explaining why the measure should become law. Both the members supporting the bill and those opposed may include their views in the report, which is filed with the parent chamber. At this point a bill is said to be reported to the House or Senate.

The fate of most bills is sealed in committee. Bills that gain committee approval do not always win consideration by the parent chamber, but those that do are likely to pass — although they may be revised on the floor. Most bills simply die in committee. Procedures to remove a bill from an unsympathetic committee seldom succeed.

Scheduling Floor Debate


The House Rules Committee functions as a sort of traffic cop for bills reported from the legislative committees. Its power is considerable, and its role in the legislative process is crucial. The power of the Rules Committee comes from its authority to control the flow of legislation from the legislative committees to the full House and to set the terms of debate for almost every major bill that reaches the floor of the House. Generally, it acts on behalf of the Speaker in facilitating and promoting the majority party’s program.

The chair of the Rules Committee, who is the Speaker’s personal choice for the post, has wide discretion in arranging the panel’s agenda. The decision to schedule, or not to schedule, a hearing on a bill will usually determine whether the measure ever comes before the House for debate. Under regular House rules, bills must be brought up and debated in the order in which they are reported from the committees. The large volume of bills vying for action makes it necessary to have some system of setting priorities. In the modern Congress there is just not enough time to act on all the legislation working its way through the legislative process.

Once the Rules Committee has given a bill the go-ahead for floor debate, it drafts a special rule for House debate, which is custom-made for each bill. The committee decides how many hours the House may have to debate the bill and whether all amendments, some amendments, or no amendments may be introduced from the floor. Although it has no authority to amend bills that come before it from other committees, the Rules Committee can strike bargains on proposed amendments desired by various members in return for granting the rule.

Until the 1980s the vast majority of rules were open, allowing any germane amendment to be offered on the floor at the appropriate time. Closed rules, barring all but committee amendments, generally were reserved for tax bills and other measures too complicated or technical to be tampered with on the House floor. But, as the number of amendments increased substantially and the leadership seemed to be losing control of the amendment process, the Rules Committee began to draft an increasing number of modified rules, specifying which amendments could be offered and often stipulating in what order they would be considered. The modified rules varied considerably. They could, for example, allow amendments only to specific sections of a bill, or permit only amendments that had been drafted and printed in the congressional record in advance of the debate. After the Republicans took control of the House in 1995, they claimed a return to more open rules, but, predictably, the Democrats disputed their statistics and definition of “openness.”

The drafting of legislation in the modern Congress is very complicated. In many cases, more than one committee works on a bill before it goes to the full House. Frequently their work involves fragile compromises, which lead to demands to keep these bills intact. Modified rules help to avoid hasty and sometimes ill-advised writing of legislation on the House floor. There also are political benefits for the leadership in controlling the amending process on the most controversial elements of a major bill. In the 1980s the Republican minority in the House skillfully used the amending process to frustrate the Democratic leadership’s floor strategy. Modified rules can often be used to head off embarrassing defeats or surprises during debates. The Rules Committee has become increasingly innovative in designing rules to keep floor debate under control and achieve the objectives of the leadership.

The rule from the Rules Committee also may waive points of order — that is, objections raised during the debate because something in the bill or a procedure used to bring the bill to the floor violates a House rule. A point of order is often used by a bill’s opponents when they do not have enough votes to defeat the bill outright, in order to delay action and perhaps win concessions from the sponsors of the legislation. The Rules Committee can set aside temporarily any rule of House procedure — except those ordered by the Constitution — in order to facilitate action.

Like the bill to which it is attached, the rule for full House action requires the approval of a simple majority of the House. It is possible to amend the rule on the floor, but this happens infrequently. Rules are seldom rejected. Once the rule is adopted, the bill itself can be debated.

There are special procedures for bringing up measures stymied in legislative committees or in the Rules Committee: the discharge petition and calendar wednesday. In addition, the Rules Committee has a special power to draft rules dislodging bills from balky legislative committees. These procedures are seldom used.

There also are procedural shortcuts for bringing routine legislation to the floor. Most legislation is passed this way. The suspension of the rules procedure is the most frequently used. Bills debated under this shortcut can be passed quickly if they can garner a two-thirds majority vote.

Scheduling legislation for debate in the Senate is a more informal process. Although the Senate has an elaborate framework of parliamentary machinery to guide its deliberations, in practice its procedures are far more flexible than those of the House. Almost anything can be done by unanimous consent. But that very flexibility also means that only one senator can delay or threaten to delay action on a bill until a compromise is struck.

Almost all noncontroversial matters, including minor legislation, private bills, and presidential nominations, are called up by a simple unanimous consent request. Generally these matters are cleared with the leadership beforehand.

For major legislation, the Senate often legislates through what is called a unanimous consent agreement. This informal agreement geared to a particular bill is the functional equivalent of a rule issued by the House Rules Committee. Such an agreement may limit debate time on a bill and on proposed amendments and may specify what amendments can be introduced and by whom. It may set a time and date to consider the bill and, leaving nothing to chance, may even set a time for a final vote.

Frequently the agreement stipulates that any amendments offered must be germane, that is, they must pertain to the subject of the bill. Unlike the House, the Senate does not have a germaneness rule; unless there has been prior agreement to exclude extraneous policy provisions, there is nothing to prevent a senator from offering a measure concerning, say, water quality or civil rights as a rider to a health bill.

Unlike a House rule, a unanimous consent agreement is drawn up privately, without committee hearings, by the majority and minority leadership and other interested senators. Because a unanimous consent agreement cannot take effect if any senator objects, the drafters must be sensitive to the rights of all one hundred members of the Senate. In contrast to the House, where scheduling is solely a majority party responsibility, Senate scheduling requires bipartisan cooperation.

Once an agreement has been struck, the measure is brought to the floor at the prearranged time. Bringing up controversial legislation by any other method — for instance, by offering a motion to do so — is risky, since most Senate motions are debatable. Any senator may engage in unlimited debate on the motion, so that a time-consuming attempt to cut off this “debate” may be necessary even before the bill is formally before the Senate. (See Filibuster.)

Like the House, the Senate has several ways of bringing to the floor legislation stalled in committee or never considered in committee: bypassing the committee stage and placing the bill on the legislative calendar; suspending Senate rules; discharging the bill from the committee blocking it; or attaching the bill as a rider to another already on the floor. Of these, only the last is generally effective.
Floor Action

There are marked differences in how the two chambers debate and dispose of legislation. This stage in the legislative process is called floor action. The House, because of its size, must adhere strictly to detailed procedures designed to expedite legislative business. The Speaker of the House controls the agenda and is easily the most powerful member in either chamber. The smaller Senate operates more informally. Power is less centralized, and no Senate leader wields the power the Speaker of the House possesses. Scheduling in the Senate traditionally has been the joint work of the majority and minority leaders.

The philosophy behind the rules of the two chambers also is different. Senate procedures are intended to give great weight to the minority, even at the expense of legislative efficiency, while House rules emphasize majority rights.

Approval of bills and amendments in either chamber requires a majority of the members voting. Thus a tie vote spells defeat. In the Senate the vice president of the United States, who under the Constitution is the Senate’s presiding officer, may vote to break a tie. But this is the only circumstance in which the vice president may vote. In the House the Speaker traditionally votes only to break a tie, although as an elected member of that chamber the Speaker may vote at any time on any proposal.

Most bills are debated and disposed of in the House in one afternoon, although some bills take two or three days. Rarely is action drawn out over many days or even weeks, as occurs in the Senate. House rules make filibusters and most other stalling tactics impractical. The House uses a parliamentary tool known as the previous question to close debate and guarantee that a bill will come to a final vote.

House parliamentary procedures are the same for most major bills, except those handled under shortcut methods. The rule, presented in a resolution reported by the Rules Committee, is debated and adopted. The House debates most legislation in the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union, or more simply, the committee of the whole. This is nothing more than the House sitting in another form. When functioning as the Committee of the Whole, the House uses special rules designed to speed up floor action. On each bill there is a period for general debate, as regulated by the Rules Committee’s rule, and separate debate and votes on all amendments introduced and allowed under the rule.

General debate is controlled by floor managers for the majority and minority parties, who often are the chair and ranking minority member of the committee or subcommittee with jurisdiction over the bill.

General debate usually lasts one hour, although more time may be allowed for controversial measures. The bill then is read section by section for amendment. The House considers amendments under guidelines that give both the proponents and opponents at least five minutes to discuss each one. But a legislator can gain extra time by employing certain parliamentary motions.

Since the majority party sets the agenda, the minority party underlines its policy differences by trying to amend the bill. Amendments publicize the minority’s positions even if there is little chance they will be adopted. Amendments also may be used as part of a strategy to defeat a bill. Opponents may attempt to weigh down the legislation with so many amendments that the bill will lose support. Some members, particularly on the minority side, develop great parliamentary expertise and act as self-appointed watchdogs of the rules and tactics of the majority.

Some votes in the House are taken by methods that make it impossible to tell how individual members voted. Others are taken by an electronic system that provides a public record of each member’s vote on an issue. The Constitution spells out certain instances when votes must be individually recorded.

When all amendments have been disposed of, the Committee of the Whole dissolves and the bill is reconsidered by the members, now sitting as the House of Representatives. The House then proceeds through a series of parliamentary motions and votes that give opponents a final opportunity to influence the outcome while guaranteeing that the proponents — assuming they are in the majority — will be able to pass the bill. Unlike the situation in the Senate, a determined House majority can always be expected to prevail on a particular bill.

Bills that reach a final passage vote are seldom defeated outright. By that time the support or opposition has been clearly established, while attempts to revise the legislation have already been made during floor debate.


In the Senate much of what goes on has been planned in advance. Senators read speeches on legislation written by their staffs, and action on bills and amendments is by prior arrangement under unanimous consent agreements. Spontaneous debate is the exception. Normally there are few senators on the floor, except when crucial votes occur. Nevertheless, floor debate and procedural strategies are important in the Senate. One reason is that Senate rules make the legislative outcome less certain than in the House. The play of personalities and political influence affects the result to a much greater extent.

Floor action bears little resemblance to the procedures outlined in the formal rules. Scheduling is quite flexible. Debate is unstructured; for example, no period is reserved for general debate. The Senate often conducts its business by setting aside its rules and operating through unanimous consent agreements. All senators can participate in scheduling. If there is broad backing for a bill, the Senate can act quickly. But if a political consensus is lacking, Senate action can be held up almost indefinitely.

On controversial bills for which agreements cannot be reached ahead of time, the majority leader may put the Senate on a track system. Tracking permits the Senate to have two or more bills pending simultaneously, with a specific time of the day designated for each bill. If one bill is being filibustered, the Senate can turn to another and thus not hold up all floor action.

The majority leader’s greatest influence comes from control of the legislative agenda. The majority leader can schedule bills to suit certain senators or the White House, and can hold votes at times that benefit a bill’s supporters or minimize the opposition’s strength. The minority leadership, however, must be consulted.

The Senate mostly relies on two types of votes, voice votes and roll calls. The roll sometimes is called slowly to give absent senators time to hustle to the floor from their offices in nearby buildings. Senators have a second chance to vote when the roll call is repeated. Much legislation is passed by unanimous consent. Even measures on which the Senate is closely divided may be passed without a roll call because the controversial issues already have been resolved, either by approval or rejection of key amendments or by procedural votes that reflect the Senate’s positions before the bill itself is voted on.

The Senate does not use such House parliamentary tools as the previous question to end debate. Since unanimous consent is impossible, debate can be cut off only by informal compromise or by cloture; for most legislation a vote of three-fifths of the entire Senate, or sixty members if there are no vacancies, is needed to end debate by cloture. Even without the filibuster, senators have many devices at their disposal for sidetracking legislation. Certain rules may delay consideration of a bill after it has been reported by a committee, and an informal practice allows senators to place “holds” on bills for varying lengths of time.
Action in Second Chamber

After a bill has been passed by one chamber it is sent to the other. At this point several parliamentary options are available. The normal practice for all but the most routine legislation is for the measure to go to committee, where there will be more hearings, followed by markup, a vote to approve the bill, and the drafting of a committee report. (In most cases, the other chamber has already begun action on its own version of a bill.) It may then go to the floor and be passed.

Differences between the House and Senate versions must be resolved before the bill can be sent to the president. On many noncontroversial measures, the second chamber may simply agree to the version passed by the first chamber. When that happens, no further legislative action is required, and the bill can be submitted to the president.

On virtually all major legislation, however, the second chamber approves a version that differs, sometimes radically, from the measure adopted by the first chamber. Often members and staff of the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over the bill informally work out a compromise that the two chambers agree to. But some bills will require a House-Senate conference committee to negotiate a compromise.

Conference Action

The House-Senate conference is a critical juncture. Everything the bill’s sponsors have worked for may be won or lost during these negotiations, and all the effort exerted by the executive branch and private interests to help pass or defeat it may have been in vain.

Either chamber may request a conference with the other to resolve the differences between the versions passed by the House and Senate. Conferees are appointed from each chamber. They are generally chosen by the chair and highest ranking minority member of the committee or subcommittee in which the bill originated.

Before House and Senate conferees begin their negotiations, each delegation may meet separately to work out its positions on the key differences. They decide what they are willing to sacrifice and what provisions they will not bargain away.

Conferences are more informal than regular committee bill-drafting sessions. The staffs play a more obvious role in the final bargaining. Spokespersons for the administration usually are present, and lobbyists try to influence proposed compromises during breaks in the meetings. In theory, conferees must observe certain rules: they may not amend or delete any section of the bill that is not in dispute, and they may not introduce new provisions not relevant to the differences already in the bills. In practice, however, many bills are largely rewritten in conference.

If there are disagreements among House conferees or among Senate conferees, such disputes must be settled by majority vote. The size of conference delegations varies, but each side votes as a unit on each provision in disagreement. The political influence and skill of conference leaders play an important part in the outcome.

After conferees have agreed to a compromise bill, they write a conference report, explaining specific changes they have made. The legislative intent of certain provisions may be written into the conference report rather than into the bill itself. The report becomes official once a majority of conferees from each chamber has signed it.

Finally, after the report has been printed, the two houses vote on the compromise. Under legislative rules, bills that have been approved in conference are not supposed to be further amended by the House or Senate. But if conferees have been unable to agree on any of the amendments in disagreement, separate votes are taken in both houses to resolve the disputed provision. The House also may vote separately on nongermane provisions added by the Senate; this practice, however, was largely abandoned under the Republican leadership in the 1990s. Sometimes bills are sent back to conference for further compromise efforts. The final version is rarely defeated, although this happens on occasion when wholesale changes are made in a long, controversial conference. Once the compromise has been approved, the bill is sent to the White House for the president’s review.
President’s Role

When a bill reaches the White House, the president has three choices:

Sign it, thus enacting the measure into law.
Veto it and return it to Congress with a statement giving the administration’s objections. Congress may override the veto by a two-thirds majority vote of those present and voting in both chambers. The bill then becomes a law without the president’s approval. (See vetoes.)
Take no action, in which case the bill will become law without the president’s signature after ten days excluding Sundays — provided Congress does not adjourn for the year during that period. Should Congress adjourn, however, the legislation does not become law. This is known as a pocket veto.

More Information

Organization and Operation of Congress

This section provides information about Organization and Operation of Congress .

Congress from Term to Term

This section provides information about Congress from Term to Term .

Functions of Congress

This section provides information about Functions of Congress .


This section provides information about Committees .


This section provides information about Clerks .


This section provides information about Parliamentarians .

Offices of Legislative Counsel

This section provides information about Offices of Legislative Counsel .

Law Revision Counsel

This section provides information about Law Revision Counsel .

The Legislative Process in Congress

This section provides information about The Legislative Process in Congress .

Introducing a Bill

This section provides information about Introducing a Bill .

Number, Referral, and First Print

This section provides information about Number, Referral, and First Print .

Hearings and Markups: Overview

This section provides information about Hearings and Markups: Overview .

Subcommittee Action

This section provides information about Subcommittee Action .

Full Committee Action

This section provides information about Full Committee Action .

Floor Proceedings

This section provides information about Floor Proceedings .

Actions in Other Chamber

This section provides information about Actions in Other Chamber .

Resolving Differences by Amendment or Conference

This section provides information about Resolving Differences by Amendment or Conference .


This section provides information about Enrollment .

Last-Minute Corrections

This section provides information about Last-Minute Corrections .

Executive Action

This section provides information about Executive Action .

Presentment to the President

This section provides information about Presentment to the President .

Approval (or Disapproval)

This section provides information about Approval (or Disapproval) .

Publishing the Law

This section provides information about Publishing the Law .

Public Law Number

This section provides information about Public Law Number .

Slip Law

This section provides information about Slip Law .

Statutes at Large

This section provides information about Statutes at Large .


This section provides information about Compilations .

The United States Code

This section provides information about The United States Code .

The Revised Statutes of 1873

This section provides information about The Revised Statutes of 1873 .

The Revised Statutes of 1878

This section provides information about The Revised Statutes of 1878 .

Positive Law and Non-Positive Law

This section provides information about Positive Law and Non-Positive Law .

Origin of the Code as Non-Positive Law

This section provides information about Origin of the Code as Non-Positive Law .

Editorial Changes

This section provides information about Editorial Changes .

General and Permanent Law

This section provides information about General and Permanent Law .

Organization into Titles

This section provides information about Organization into Titles .

Enactment of Titles into Positive Law

This section provides information about Enactment of Titles into Positive Law .

Codification and Classification of New Laws

This section provides information about Codification and Classification of New Laws .

Resolving Conflicts among Published Versions of Law

This section provides information about Resolving Conflicts among Published Versions of Law .


Notes and References

  1. Encarta Online Encyclopedia

See Also

Further Readings

Binder, Sarah A. Stalemate: Causes and Consequences of Legislative Gridlock. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2003.

Birnbaum, Jeffrey H., and Alan S. Murray. Showdown at Gucci Gulch. New York: Random House, 1987.

Davidson, Roger H., and Walter J. Oleszek. Congress and Its Members. 8th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2002.

Elving, Ronald D. Conflict and Compromise: How Congress Makes the Law. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Oleszek, Walter J. Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process. 5th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2001.

Redman, Eric. The Dance of Legislation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973.

Sinclair, Barbara. Unorthodox Lawmaking: New Legislative Processes in the U.S. Congress. 2nd ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2000.

Smith, Steven S. Call to Order: Floor Politics in the House and Senate. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1989.

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  • Article Name: Legislative Process
  • Author: E. Encyclopedia
  • Description: Congress: Legislative Process Each Congress proposes thousands of new laws, but only a small percentage win the approval [...]

This entry was last updated: September 9, 2015


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