The 10 Stages a Bill Takes as It Moves Through Congress

The United States capitol, where bills become law.
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There are many processes a bill goes through in the U.S. Congress on the way to becoming a law, and at each turn, there are a myriad of ways the bill can be defeated before it ever reaches the floor for a vote. Even after approval by both chambers, the president can still veto it. The legislative process is a complicated one but can be broken down into ten basic steps.

1 First Steps: Introducing the Bill

  1. The bill is drafted. A bill can be drafted by anyone, but must be sponsored and introduced by a member of Congress, then presented in either the House or Senate. The president or a member of the cabinet may also draft a bill but a member of Congress must introduce it. When a member of Congress chooses to introduce a bill, he or she becomes a sponsor of that bill.

  2. The bill is introduced and then goes to the appropriate committee or committees, where it is studied and its chances of passing are determined.

2 The Bill in Committee Review

  1. The committee usually will refer the bill to a subcommittee for further review. Often hearings are held where views can be made public and put on record, and opposing views can be heard.

  2. The subcommittee "marks up" the bill, making changes and amendments, then reports to the full committee. The bill can be killed if the committee takes no action on it.

  3. The committee debates, then votes on its presentation of the bill to the full House or Senate, a process called "ordering the bill to be reported."

3 The Bill Goes to the House and Senate

  1. After committee debate and approval of amendments, the bill is scheduled for consideration on the floor of the chamber, which will usually debate and then vote to either pass or defeat it. If it is passed in one chamber it is called an "act."

  2. After a bill is passed by either the House or Senate, it is then referred to the other chamber where it will go through similar committee and floor actions (except when the other chamber is already considering its own similar legislation). That chamber may then approve, reject, ignore or change the bill.

  3. If there are significant differences between versions of a bill passed in both houses, a bicameral conference committee attempts to reconcile the differences between House and Senate versions -- the two houses must approve identical versions. A report with the committee members' requests for changes is given to both the House and Senate for approval. If they do not agree on approval, the bill dies.

4 Last Stop: The President

  1. The approved bill is sent to the president for review, and becomes a law if the president signs it, or if it remains unsigned on the president's desk over a 10-day period while Congress remains in session. If the president doesn’t agree with the legislation, he can veto it and send it back to Congress with an explanation. However, if Congress adjourns within the 10-day period and the bill remains unsigned, it also fails to become law -- this is known as a "pocket veto."

  2. If the president vetoes a bill, Congress has the option of overriding it. The bill goes back to Congress for a vote. If the bill receives a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers, it overrides the presidential veto and becomes law.

Hollye Dexter’s articles about mental health, parenting, women’s issues and activism have been widely published. Her book “Dancing at the Shame Prom” was praised by Gloria Feldt (CEO of Planned Parenthood) as “…a brilliant book that just might change your life.”