When you were in school, you may have learned how a bill becomes a law, possibly with the aid of a catchy song. You were probably taught that a bill needs to be passed by both chambers of Congress. Then, the president can either veto it or sign it into law. And that was it. But the real process is much more complicated than that.
Let’s start with the basics. It is true that a bill starts in Congress. Anyone can suggest a bill but only a Member of Congress can introduce it. This is true for all types of laws except taxes, which the Constitution says can only start in the House, the chamber they viewed closest to the people. Not even the president can introduce a bill.
The House of Representatives has 435 members from districts based on population (reallocated every ten years based on the census) meaning it takes 218 votes for a bill to pass. In the Senate, it takes 51 votes, though due to Senate rules, it really takes 60 votes (but that is a topic for another day). Because there are an even number of senators, 100, ties are possible. The Constitution gives the vice president the power to cast the deciding vote.
It is also true that once a bill is passed by both houses, the president can either sign it into law or veto it, in which case, Congress has the opportunity to override the veto. Each house has to approve the override by a two-thirds majority. This is very rare, historically occurring to fewer than 10 percent of vetoes. The president also has the power to pocket veto. The Constitution gives the president ten days to sign a bill into law. If not, the bill becomes a law anyway, except if Congress adjourns during those ten days. That is called a pocket veto and is also extremely rare.
However, there is a little more to this process than that. Bills actually start in subcommittees and go through many different hands before they even reach the chamber floor. Both the Senate and the House have different committees that cover a variety of topics like education or healthcare. These committees then have subcommittees covering even more specific legislative areas. This is where a bill truly begins. Subcommittees will usually hold hearings where members question experts about the bill’s subject matter. It will then go through what is known as a markup where members will debate and amend the bill. If the subcommittee approves it, the bill then goes through the same process in the full committee. Must bills die in committee but in the rare chance that it is voted out of committee, it moves on to the chamber floor.
Then, the full chamber has a chance to debate the bill and amend it. Often members will attach an amendment that has nothing to do with the bill to either get an extra provision for their district or to kill the bill, known as a poison pill. Bills that receive many irrelevant amendments are known as Christmas tree bills. If the bill is passed by the chamber, it must go through the entire process again in the other chamber.
Usually, the second chamber will have plenty of changes of their own. That is why, before the bill gets to the president’s desk, it is debated in the Conference Committee. This is ad hoc group of members from both chambers that reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. Once that version is approved by both chambers, it finally makes it way to the White House. The bill is actually hand delivered from the Clerk of the House or Secretary of the Senate (depending on where the bill originated) to the Executive Clerk of the White House.
With such a long process, change in Washington is slow. The majority of bills introduced will never see the chamber floor, nonetheless the Oval Office. Many long-serving members of Congress will never even witness one of their bills get out of committee. So the next time you ask why congress can’t get anything done, remember what it takes to create a law.
Blake has written for numerous websites and publications, with a strong focus on non-profits and industry trade groups. He really enjoys cooking as well and graduated from GWU School of Media and Public Affairs.