Understanding The US Legislative Process

Forms of Congressional Action

Under the US Constitution, Congress initiates legislation. Legislation passed by Congress must be signed by the President to become law.

Congressional action is usually undertaken in one of four major forms: a bill, a joint resolution, a concurrent resolution, and a simple resolution.

The Bill: A bill is designated H.R. ____. The vast majority of legislative proposals are in the form of a bill. To become law, a bill must be passed in identical form by both chambers and signed by the President. Although a bill generally may be introduced in either the House or Senate, the Constitution states that measures that raise revenue, such as tax bills, must originate in the House. By tradition, spending (appropriations) bills also generally originate in the House, although more recently, some have originated in the Senate.

Each chamber can pass a bill on the same subject which be different in content. Upon passage by both chambers by simple majority vote, a bill is usually sent to a joint House-Senate Conference Committee where differences in the House and Senate-passed measures are resolved. Both the House and Senate must approve the compromise measure, called a Conference Report. The bill is then sent to the President who may sign the measure into law, take no action, or veto the bill. A bill becomes law only if (1) the President signs the measure; (2) the President does not sign the bill, but allows it to automatically become law by waiting ten days from the date of final passage while Congress is in session; or (3) both the House and Senate override a presidential veto by a two-thirds majority vote in each chamber.

Joint Resolution: A joint resolution is designated H.J.Res. ____. There is little practical difference between a bill and joint resolution, as both require the President’s signature to become law. Joint resolutions are not used as frequently as bills, however. Often they are used for a matter which requires quick action, for a specific purpose, or for a single appropriation bill, e.g., an Omnibus Appropriation bill.

Like a bill, a joint resolution may originate in either chamber, or in both chambers simultaneously. For example, a joint resolution disapproving an arms sale can be introduced in both the House and Senate separately. Only one, however, will eventually be sent to the President, depending on which chamber acts first on the resolution. If the House acts first, it will refer its resolution to the Senate and vice-versa.

Concurrent Resolution: A concurrent resolution is designated H.Con.Res. ____ or S.Con.Res. ____ according to the chamber in which it originates. It must be passed by both chambers, but is not presented to the President for signature into law. Therefore, concurrent resolutions do not have the force of law. The term “concurrent” means that both chambers have passed the measure.

A concurrent resolution has two major purposes: (1) for matters affecting the operations of both legislative bodies, such as adjournment, recesses and administrative rules, e.g., the concurrent budget resolution governs the legislative process for the budget but has no binding effect on the Executive branch; and (2) to express the sentiment of the House or Senate.

Simple Resolution: A simple resolution is designated H.Res. ____ or S.Res ____ depending on the chamber in which it originates. It becomes effective upon passage by the chamber in which it originated. It is not passed by both chambers nor is it presented to the President for signature into law. Simple resolutions are usually limited to matters of the operations of the chamber in which it is passed or to express the sentiment of that chamber, e.g., sense of the House of sense of the Senate.

Key Steps in the Legislative Process

Introduction of Legislation: Bills may be introduced in either the House or the Senate by individual members. Other members who support the legislation will sign on as co-sponsors. If the Administration want to initiate legislation, it will ask a member to sponsor its proposal. In most instances the chairman of the committee of jurisdiction will introduce the legislation “by request” as a courtesy to the Administration.

Referral to Committee: Upon introduction in either the House or Senate, the bill is referred to the committee of jurisdiction. A bill can be referred to more than one committee depending on the issue it addresses. For example, in the House, sanctions legislation is usually referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and also to Ways and Means and/or Financial Services. In the Senate the bill would be referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Banking and/or the Finance Committee.

Public Hearings: For most major pieces of legislation the full committee or in some cases the subcommittee of jurisdiction, will hold public hearing with Administration witnesses or with private witnesses. Most hearings are public and web-cast, except when the topic of discussion is classified.

Markups: Following the hearing, or series of hearings, the Committee meets to mark up the legislation, i.e., make changes by amending the original text. Mark up is the first step in the legislative process in which the legislation is likely to undergo major changes. During markup members express their views, and proposal and vote on amendments. Once the bill is approved, the Committee refers the bill to the House or Senate floor for further action,

Reporting the Bill: If the committee votes to “report” the bill, a written report describing the scope and purpose of the bill will accompany it. The report also frequently includes instructions and requests of the Administration that are not specifically included in the legislation, and therefore do not have the force of law. The Administration, however, usually follows report language closely because it represents the view of the members.

Rules Committee Consideration: In the House nearly all major pieces of legislation reported out of committee are sent to the Rules Committee where they are granted a rule for floor consideration. The rule is in the form of a simple resolution an may set time limits for debate and limit the type and number of amendments that can offered, or not allow any amendments at all. The bill and simple resolution embodying the rules for debate are sent to the House floor. Before proceeding to consideration of the bill, the House must first pass the simple resolution containing the rules for consideration. If the rule is defeated, consideration of the accompanying bill cannot occur. A new rule must be granted by the Rules Committee and again submitted for passage.

Even non-controversial legislation, usually considered under “suspension of the rules” goes before the Rules Committee, but this procedure is more one of scheduling and no resolution guiding debate is necessary. Passage of non-controversial legislation under Suspension requires a two-thirds majority vote and debate is limited to 40 minutes and no amendments are allowed.

The Rules Committee is controlled by the Speaker of the House and is a primary tool of the majority party in controlling legislative action in the House.

It should be noted the Senate does not have a Rules Committee to control legislation. Legislation is brought to the Senate floor upon agreement by the Majority and Minority Leader. However, any one Senate can object to consideration of the bill, in which case the legislation could be delayed for a short time or indefinitely.

Floor Consideration: Once a bill reaches the House or Senate floor it is subject to debate and amendments according to the rules of the chamber. Passage of almost all legislation – with the exception of constitutional amendments, ratification of treaties and attempts to override a Presidential veto, require a simple majority vote. (Veto overrides, treaty ratification, and constitutional amendments always require a two-thirds majority vote. In the Senate, sixty votes are required to invoke “cloture”, which limits debate on the bill or pending amendments.

Joint Conference Committee: After passage by both the House and Senate a bill is usually sent to a Joint House-Senate conference committee where differences in the House and Senate-passed versions are resolved. Conference Committee members are usually composed of the senior members of the committees that originally considered the legislation. Conferees are appointed by the House and Senate leadership.

Floor Consideration: Upon completion of the joint conference committee the final version of the bill as reconciled by the two chamber is sent to the House and Senate floor for a straight up or down vote. No amendments are allowed and the Conference Report must be approved by majority vote by both chambers before it can be sent to the President for signature into law.

Presidential Action: Upon receipt of the bill or Conference Report the President may: (1) sign the bill into law; (2) not sign the bill, but allow it to automatically become law by waiting 10 days from the date of final passage while Congress is in session; or (3) veto the measure and return the unsigned bill with his objections to Congress. If Congress adjourns before the 10-day period expires, the President does not have to formally veto the bill but may just let it “die”. This method of killing a bill is called a “pocket veto”.

Veto Override: Congress may attempt to override the President’s veto. This action requires a two-thirds vote by both chambers. If Congress passes the bill by this margin, the measure becomes law despite the objections of the President. If Congress is unable to override the President’s veto, it has the option of passing a new version of the bill amending the measure in such a way that the President would no longer veto the bill.

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Information gathered and sourced from Congressional Quarterly