The United States Congress is the legislative branch of the government and is directly responsible for crafting, debating and approving new laws and for amending or repealing existing ones. It's a grand task, to be sure, but there is a clear-cut process dictating exactly how a piece of legislation becomes law, and it all begins with the first draft of the bill, which must be first formally introduced for the process to begin.
Only a member of Congress may introduce legislation. This rule is absolute. Only a sitting senator can introduce legislation in the Senate, and only elected representatives can introduce legislation in the House.
Members of Congress are not expected or required to personally write the text of the bills they are introducing. Even congresspersons with legal expertise would not have the time to accomplish such a feat. Generally speaking, no single person writes any bill. This work is normally left to a staff composed of legislative aides and lawyers from the congressional Offices of Legislative Counsel. Congressional staffers and lawyers work up the text of the bill, often in concert with outside advocates and experts, such as lobbyists, the White House or private citizens, and the final product is what is ultimately introduced for consideration.
Before a congressperson can introduce a bill, he or she must sponsor it. Sponsorship is the means by which a congressperson officially endorses the contents and passage of a bill.
In the House of Representatives, there is a wooden box on the House speaker's platform called "the hopper." Representatives introduce their bills by placing a physical copy of the legislation in the hopper. Senators may introduce legislation by announcing it when they have the floor or by placing a copy on the presiding officer's desk.
The Committee Hurdle
When a bill is formally introduced, the chamber's clerk gives it a legislative number. This number, which begins with S. for Senate bills and H.R. for House bills, becomes the official administrative identity of the bill and is used for referencing. The bill is then referred to the most appropriate committee. A House bill adjusting farm subsidies, for instance, would go to the House Committee on Agriculture. In committee, the first round of debates and edits on the bill begins. If the committee tables a bill, no action is taken on it, and it effectively "dies." If a majority of committee members support the bill, it moves forward in the process to be debated by the chamber at large and the new bill makes a huge step toward becoming law.
- Spencer Platt/Getty Images News/Getty Images