Some will remember Schoolhouse Rock! from Saturday morning cartoons (and those that don’t can take a quick visit to ABC for a peek at the 1970s public service announcements ) where we learned how a bill becomes a law. Though Bill’s progress omits the role of political parties, the federal legislative process hasn’t really changed that much in the last 40 years: legislation gets introduced in one or both chambers, is referred to the appropriate committee, is (sometimes) passed out of committee for vote by the full chamber, and, if passed by both chambers of Congress, is sent to the President for signature (or veto). In this post, we will review the process for moving bills through Congress a bit more thoroughly by discussing how political parties influence the process.
The first step for any legislation is introduction of the bill on the floor of one of the chamber floors. Any legislator can generally introduce any legislation on any topic, though the major political parties will usually work to coordinate bills among their members on issues central to their platform. This coordination prevents competing bills from interfering with the policy agenda of the party and reduces duplication of effort. Once introduced, legislation is referred to a relevant issue-based committee. Education related bills introduced in the Senate, for instance, are typically referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee. Symbolic legislation is sometimes introduced by lawmakers as a statement of their stance or commitment to an issue even though they know it will never be assigned to a committee. Unless the legislation is deemed important by the leadership of the committee it is assigned to it will never progress. A lot of legislation is introduced but never taken up by a committee.
Congress are responsible for managing more business than they can reasonably have time to debate on the full chamber floor. Committees (and subcommittees) formed by topic or subject do a lot of the investigative work, hold hearings, and make recommendations to the rest of their colleagues within the full chamber. Committee membership is determined by the political parties and the party that holds the majority in the full chamber (the majority party) gets to automatically hold the majority of seats on committees. Committee majority leadership determines which bills are considered by the committee.
Many bills will be the subject of hearings held by the committee to allow invited members of the public or experts from the field to provide their opinion of the effects of the bill were it to be passed into law. Whether or not hearings are held, the bill must be voted on by the committee members in order to be reported to the full chamber for consideration. Members may propose amendments to the bill, which may modify the bill or simply introduce additional legislation pertaining to the topic of the bill. Amendments are voted on individually, but if passed are then considered part of the bill as it progresses.
Committee votes are not always indicative of the fate of the bill in the full chamber. Sometimes committee members will vote to advance a bill out of the committee so it can be considered by the full chamber even if they are not sure they will ultimately support the final passage of the bill. In legislatures where the overall chamber majority is a small one, the bill may therefore pass out of committee, but still face challenges in securing sufficient votes to pass out of the full chamber. Just getting out of committee doesn't guarantee that legislation will pass the chamber; a lot of legislation is reported out of committee and is never considered by the full chamber.
Once a bill is reported out of committee, it may be considered by the members of the full chamber. As with the business undertaken by any given committee, the majority party leadership within the chamber determines which bills are considered for vote by the full chamber. Similarly, how an individual member votes on a bill may or may not follow the position of the party they are affiliated with. Legislation deemed a priority by the majority party is carefully watched and votes are tallied informally by party whips before a vote is called to ensure the bill will pass. The party whips may circulate to “whip up” support for the bill and report to the party leadership when they have enough members committed to voting in favor of passage for them to call the vote on the chamber floor.
In order for a bill to become a law, it has to pass both chambers of Congress; the process above occurs in each chamber. Legislation may be introduced first in one chamber and pass all the way through committee and to passage within the chamber before it is introduced in the other chamber. Alternatively, identical legislation may be introduced simultaneously in both chambers and work through the committees at the same or similar times. Legislation may pass through one chamber with ease, only to stall at any point in the process in the other chamber. There is no single path legislation in Congress must follow for passage through the chambers.
As bills progress through each chamber, they may be altered by amendments. Even legislation that was introduced with identical text in each chamber may be passed through each chamber with different language or amendments. In order to reconcile legislation on the same topic that has passed each chamber, an ad hoc group called a conference committee is convened. The conference committee generally includes the key leadership from the committees that originally considered the bill in each chamber. The committee is charged with creating a compromise bill, which they do by drafting a report that includes amendments to the bills from each chamber to bring them into agreement with each other. The compromise committee report is voted on by each chamber and is not subject to further amendment, but may be sent back to the conference committee.
The final requirement for a bill to become a law is the President’s signature. The review and approval of the Executive branch represents one of the checks and balances written into our Constitution. In times when the same major political party controls Congress and holds the Presidency, bills that are sent to the President for signature may be vetoed less often. In times when Congressional leadership is divided or when Congress is controlled by a different party than the President, vetoes may be more common. Even Presidential vetoes are not the final say; however, Congress can override a veto by repassing the legislation with a 2/3rds majority.
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