The legislative process is more complicated than taught in
most civic courses. This section presents a detailed description
of the legislative maze a bill must navigate before it can become
law. (Prepared by our Visiting Scholar, Ilona Nickels.)
Additional narratives of the legislative process are available
from the House and Senate Parliamentarians. Visit "Enactment
of a Law" or "How
Our Laws are Made".
The Stages of the Legislative Process
- bill introduction
- referral to committee(s)
- committee hearings
- committee mark-up
- committee report
- scheduling legislation
- house: special rules, suspension
of the rules, or privileged matter
- senate: unanimous consent
agreements or motions to proceed
- floor debate
- floor amendment
- vote on final passage
- reconciling differences between
the house and senate
- amendments between the houses,
- conference committee negotiations
- floor debate on conference
- floor vote on conference report
- conference version presented
to the president
- president signs into law or allows bill to become law
without his signature
- president vetoes bill
- first chamber vote on overriding
- second chamber vote on overriding
- bill becomes law if 2/3 vote
to override is achieved in both chambers
- bill fails to become law if
one chamber fails to override
The Legislative Process
Under the United States Constitution, in Article I, section
1, the power to legislate is vested in the United States Congress.
The Congress is made up of two bodies: the U.S. House of Representatives
and the U.S. Senate. The concurrence of both is required to
enact a law. However, each chamber has a unique mission, distinct
rules of procedure, and different traditions. The bicameral
design of the U.S. Congress is consistent with the basic principle
of government embraced by the framers of our Constitution: that
dividing government into units which must share power with one
another provides an inherent check against tyranny.
The fact that the Congress does not act as an efficient, homogenous
unit, but as two bodies often in conflict with one another,
adds to the difficulties in processing bills from introduction
through to law. The U.S. legislative process can accurately
be described as legislative Darwinism, or survival of the fittest.
In recent Congresses, not even 6% of all the bills introduced
became law. This means that within the 2-year life-span of a
Congress, an average of 94% of all the bills introduced fail
to reach enactment. For more data see the Appendix at the end
of this report. The bias built into the U.S. legislative process
makes it difficult to enact a law but easier to block its passage.
In creating a bicameral legislature, the framers saw the House
as the chamber representative of, accountable to, and closely
connected with the American people. The entire membership of
the House, now set at 435, stands for election every two years.
Through frequent elections, Representatives are viewed as more
likely to be sensitive to changes in popular sentiment. Representatives
come to know their constituencies well and are expected to accurately
reflect the views of the local citizenry and advocate the needs
of their districts.
The Senate is a continuing body; only one-third of its membership
of 100 runs for election at any one time. Moreover, each Senator
stands for election only every six years. The continuity of
the chamber and the longer term is to ensure that Senators will
be better able to resist the immediate pressures of popular
thought and serve to restrain the House.
While the House is meant to reflect the wishes of the majority
of the American people in the lawmaking process, the Senate
is designed to force the deliberation necessary to thoroughly
examine the popular opinion. Deliberation requires delaying
passage of proposals until adequate discussion has taken place.
As a result, the Senateís rules and traditions give advantages
to the minority, such as unlimited debate, so that they can
stop the majority from acting too rapidly. The rules and traditions
of the House, however, favor the majority -- to ensure that
the peopleís views prevail and that no minority may obstruct
Rules and Procedures Governing the Legislative Process
Both bodies follow parliamentary procedures that are based
on a variety of sources. In each, there is a body of standing
rules: 51 in the House and 42 in the Senate. The House Rules,
accompanied by extensive annotations from the Parliamentarian,
are contained in a volume known as the House Rules and Manual.
The Senateís rules are contained in the Senate Manual.
governing procedure in both chambers are the precedents of each
body. Precedents are past rulings of the presiding officer which
expand upon, explain, or fill in gaps in the written body of
standing rules. The precedents are compiled at the end of each
Congress and combined with previous ones. Precedents need to
be viewed simultaneously with the standing rules for an accurate
picture of proper procedure.
Some floor actions are taken, not pursuant to either the rules
or precedents, but pursuant to statute -- previously enacted
public laws with rulemaking provisions written into them for
specific pieces of legislation. Prominent examples include the
Congressional Budget Act of 1974, governing budget resolutions
and reconciliation bills, and the fast-track authority governing
bills implementing trade agreements, like NAFTA, in the Trade
Act of 1974.
Finally, the U.S. Constitution sets forth a few procedural
mandates for both the House and Senate in Article I, e.g. requirement
for a sufficient second of 1/5 of those present to obtain a
yea-and-nay vote, and requirement for the presence of a quorum
in order to conduct business.
Bill Development and Introduction
a Member of Congress can introduce a bill. However, the idea
for the legislation may be developed elsewhere. Members receive
proposed drafts of bills from constituents, academics, interest
groups, lobbyists, state legislatures, executive branch departments,
federal agencies, and the President of the United States. Members
who embrace the concept can introduce it as their own, or if
they wish to keep some distance from the proposal, can introduce
it by request, with those words printed on the face of the bill,
after their name as sponsor. This implies they introduced the
bill out of professional courtesy, but does not mean they are
necessarily embracing its ideas.
Introductory statements are not required in either chamber;
they are a matter of discretion on the part of each Member.
Without an introductory statement to review, it is often impossible
to discern in the public record on whose behalf a bill is being
introduced. The words on the bill itself, by request, are insufficient
to reveal whether the request comes from a public official or
a private organization. Moreover, the House Rules and Manual
states that: It has never been the practice of the House to
permit the names of the persons requesting the introduction
of the bill to be printed in the Record. [Rule XXII,
Clause 6, section 860.]
At times, a proposal for legislation emanates from the President
and is given much advance publicity, or is announced formally
by him -- in a State of the Union speech, for example, or in
a press conference. The U.S. Constitution in Article II, section
3, states that:
He shall from time to time give to the Congress information
of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration
such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient
. . . .
In those instances it is widely known that when a Member of
Congress does respond to the Presidentís recommendation and
proceeds to introduce the proposal in legislative form, it is
done on behalf of the President. However, the fact that the
idea for the legislation did come from the President of the
United States carries no guarantees with it. The bill introduced
on his behalf by a Member of Congress will still go to House
and Senate committee(s) which will work their will on it. The
politics of divided government (i.e. when the White House is
controlled by one party and the Congress by the other) will
have an impact. Sufficient votes within the Presidentís own
party may not materialize to support his proposal. The opposing
party may radically change his proposal as introduced through
successful floor amendments. The American governmental tradition
of checks and balances is so well established that the President
cannot rely on congressional concurrence for his policy proposals,
no matter how grandly proposed. He must lobby ferociously for
them with the American people and their elected representatives
-- just as do all other legislative advocates in our system
which respects and protects the independence of the legislature
from the executive.
The motives Members of Congress have for introducing a bill
are many. Obviously, enactment into law is primary. At other
times, bills are introduced to gain a focal point for generating
interest and discussion of a subject matter. Sometimes, bills
are introduced only to appease constituents or political groups.
They may be introduced to spur the executive or judicial branches
into action. Or as mentioned above, they may be introduced by
request on behalf of a private individual or public official.
Given the low percentage of bills enacted into law, only those
bills vigorously promoted among colleagues and given vocal support
by outside interest groups will advance. Bills that are not
promoted, that lack policy urgency, or political consensus will
not move. No matter how well-drafted, bills are just pieces
of paper. Someone must push them along for them to progress
through the maze of the legislative process.
Types of Legislation
An important question to be settled in preparing a bill for
introduction is its form. Some legislative vehicles are law-making;
some are not. Although the word bill is accepted widely to mean
any piece of legislation, including even in this article, that
use is not technically precise enough. The word, measure more
accurately encompasses all the varieties available. Brief definitions
of the various types of legislation follow:
Bills. These become law. That means
passage is required in both the House and Senate and the
President must sign them into law or allow them to become
law without his signature. Bills are numbered H.R. in the
House, e.g. H.R. 1300; and S. in the Senate, e.g. S. 300.
Joint Resolutions. These also become
law. Again this requires passage in both the House and Senate,
as well as Presidential approval. Joint Resolutions are
numbered H.J.Res. in the House (e.g. H.J.Res. 633); and
S.J.Res. in the Senate, (e.g. S.J.Res. 133). By tradition,
it is joint resolutions which are used for any proposal
to amend the Constitution. Contrary to bills, joint resolutions
may also contain a series of whereas clauses (an explanatory
preamble) and a resolving clause.
Concurrent Resolutions. These do
not become law. Instead they take an action on behalf
of both chambers. This means both the House and Senate must
pass them, but they are not sent on to the President. For
example, concurrent resolutions are used to set the spending
and revenue levels in the Congressional Budget Resolution,
which does not rise to the level of law. Concurrent resolutions
are also used for sense of Congress language -- advisory
in nature and unenforceable -- which, for example, expresses
the opinion of the Congress about a Presidential action,
or congratulates a foreign leader on his election, or expresses
condolences to another nation for a loss. Concurrent resolutions
are also used to create the occasional joint committee of
Congress, and for administrative acts, such as granting
the use of the Capitol Rotunda for a ceremony. Concurrent
resolutions are numbered H.Con.Res. in the House, e.g. H.Con.Res.
210; and S.Con.Res. in the Senate, e.g. S.Con.Res. 160.
Simple Resolutions. Simple resolutions
do not become law. They speak on behalf of one chamber only.
They need only pass in that one chamber. A simple House
resolution might be used to create a new House committee.
A simple Senate resolution might be introduced to express
the opinion, or the sense of the Senate on a matter. Simple
resolutions in each chamber are offered to amend that bodyís
standing rules. Simple resolutions are numbered H.Res. in
the House, e.g. H.Res. 249; and S.Res. in the Senate, e.g.
Once introduced, bills are referred to one of 20 committees
in the U.S. Senate and one of 20 in the House. Committees each
have varying subject matter jurisdictions based on years of
precedent, some of which have risen to a level of codification
in the rules of the chamber. The subject matter of the bill,
as determined by each chamberís Parliamentarian, dictates its
referral to the appropriate committee. If more than one subject
matter is involved, the Senate practices primary jurisdiction.
The committee with ownership of the bulk of the subject matter
receives the total bill for processing, regardless of matter
extraneous to its jurisdiction. However, in the House, the Speaker
may designate one committee as primary for the bill and another
as secondary, with authority to speak only to those parts of
the bill which correspond to its jurisdiction. The House also
permits sequential and split referrals:
Sequential referral. This referral sends
the bill first to one committee, then when (and if) it completes
consideration of the bill, it is sent to a second committee.
If the second committee likewise chooses to report the bill,
it goes to the House floor.
Split referral.This referral breaks a
bill into its component titles. Titles go to various committees
as dictated by the subject matter. Each committee receives
the titles appropriate to its jurisdiction simultaneously.
All must report their provisions before the legislation
is eligible to receive floor consideration.
The Speaker of the House makes the decision on what kind of
referral a bill should receive, based on the advice of the Parliamentarian
and based on the political agendas of the chairmen involved.
In general, bills referred to more than one committee have longer
odds in reaching enactment. More panels are involved, more schedules
have to be coordinated, and more policy conflicts will need
resolution. Although not impossible with adequate political
will, it is clearly more difficult to clear multiple committee
hurdles, rather than a single one.
There is no requirement in either the House or Senate that
committees act on a bill. Once a bill has been referred to a
committee it remains there until the committee either reports
it out (which requires a majority vote of the committee membership)
or is discharged from its further consideration (which requires
a majority vote of the entire chamber). Committees receive far
more bills than they are able to process. It is largely the
chairmanís call, in consultation with other Members on the committee,
to schedule specific bills for consideration, and ignore others.
Because a majority vote is required to report a bill to the
floor, chairmen cannot be completely arbitrary in making these
agenda decisions. However, if a chairman declines to schedule
a bill for committee consideration there is little effective
procedural recourse in either chamber. Persuading the chairman
to schedule a matter becomes part of the political work each
Member undertakes when he is assigned to a committee.
Although not required, most committees will begin a billís
consideration by holding public hearings. Hearings may focus
on a specific bill or alternative bills dealing with the same
subject matter. Or they may be held to examine a subject matter,
without specific legislation in mind. Hearings may also be held
apart from legislative goals. They can be held to investigate
a scandal that has already erupted, or alleged malfeasance in
office. Hearings are sometimes oversight in nature, considered
part of the checks and balances of the American governmental
model, which require Congress to supervise executive branch
When holding a hearing, the committee will usually call expert
witnesses, occasionally average citizens to dramatize a problem
with a personal story, Members of Congress with experience in
the matter, and executive branch officials to explain their
actions or inactions.
hearings have been completed, a committee will almost always
hold a mark-up session next, if it has decided to proceed with
the legislation under consideration. Mark-up is the term given
to a committee meeting during which Members offer specific changes
to the language of the bill in front of them -- literally marking
up the text of the original bill. Their amendments may seek
to insert additional language at points in the original bill,
to delete existing language, or to delete existing language
and insert in its place new text. Another choice is for the
committee to scrap the existing bill completely and transform
what the Members have learned in the hearing process into a
new, alternative bill. The new bill is then introduced by the
committeeís chairman and referred to as a clean bill. The committee
must then take a vote on whether or not to report the clean
bill to the chamber floor for further consideration. Legislative
histories and databases will provide links between the original
bill introduced and the new bill which has superseded it.
If the decision is made to report the bill, most committees
will write reports to accompany the bill to the floor explaining
their actions and providing a comparison with current law. House
rules require every committee to issue a report whenever it
sends a bill to the floor. However, the Senate has no such requirement.
Reports are discretionary. Most committees prefer reporting
a bill with an accompanying report. However, there are often
time constraints or a perceived lack of widespread interest
in the bill which may lead a committee to dispense with preparing
Awaiting Floor Action
Once reported, a political decision must be made whether to
schedule or not schedule a bill for floor consideration. Scheduling
is a matter of political timing and is based on an acute awareness
of the daily vote count. As a result, there is often a considerable
time lapse between the day a committee reports out a bill and
the day it is taken up on the floor for consideration by the
entire body. In the House, bills are lodged on either the Union
or House Calendars, and await consideration there while a scheduling
decision is being made. The Union Calendar is used for bills
which directly or indirectly expend money or raise revenues,
while the House Calendar is used for everything else.
In the Senate, measures await consideration on the Legislative
Calendar, known formally as the Calendar of General Orders.
Bringing a Bill to the Floor
In both chambers, the authority to call up bills for consideration
on the chamber floor rests with the majority partyís leaders.
In the House, the decision is made after consultation among
the Speaker and his immediate deputies, such as the House Majority
Leader, Majority Whip, and party conference chairman. Also called
in are the committee chairmen appropriate to the subject matter.
An individual Member, no matter how persuasive, lacks the tools
to circumvent or reverse the leadershipís decisions concerning
the legislative agenda. The only way to do so, short of persuasion,
would be to marshal the necessary 218 votes (a simple majority
of the House) to adopt a discharge motion, forcing a bill out
of committee and bringing it to the floor. The procedure is
rarely attempted because it is rarely successful. For members
of the majority party, it has the political consequence of alienating
oneís party leadership, for it seeks to alter their chosen legislative
Once the House majority leadership has made the decision to
call up a matter, it determines under what conditions the bill
will be considered. Under the regular order, debate on the bill
would be for one hour equally divided between the two parties,
and debate on each amendment would be five minutes for each
side. In some cases this is perceived as too generous, in others
as too restrictive. As a result the leadership often decides
to provide for a special order of consideration rather than
allow the regular order to proceed. These are known as special
rules, and are drafted by and reported from the House Rules
In the Senate, the authority to call up a bill is reserved
for the Majority Leader. In setting the legislative agenda,
the Majority Leader consults with the Minority Leader, with
the committee chairmen appropriate to the subject matter, and
any individual Senators who have notified him of their interest
in the legislation at hand. The Senateís Majority Leader must
be more inclusive and accommodating than the Speaker needs be
in the House, because he is restrained by the tools available
to him to call up bills. Senate procedure permits only two:
the unanimous consent of all Senators, or a motion to proceed
to the consideration of a bill. One single objection prevents
unanimous consent from succeeding, so if this route is chosen
extensive negotiations to meet every Senatorís concerns must
precede it. The alternative, the motion to proceed, is problematic
because it is fully debatable, and often invites extensive debate,
prior to even reaching the bill itself.
As a result of the decision to use unanimous consent as the
favored method to call up a bill, individual Senators can expect
to have their scheduling needs and policy views considered by
the party leaders as consensus is sought to bring legislation
to the floor. This gives them far more procedural autonomy and
influence than their House counterparts enjoy.
Debate and Amendment
House rules set time restrictions on all forms of debate, not
surprising given the size of the body. Once a bill is on the
floor, Members are normally yielded anywhere from one to five
minutes to speak on the pending matter. It is the responsibility
of the majority and minority floor managers for the bill to
parcel out the debate time to individual Members. The chairman
of the committee which reported the bill acts as its floor manager,
while the minority floor manager is typically the highest ranking
minority Member on the reporting committee. Closing debate in
the House is relatively easy to achieve. Motions are available
to the managers to close debate by a simple majority vote.
However, ending debate in the Senate is no easy matter, in
accordance with its deliberative role. The regular order of
procedure places absolutely no limitations on the length of
debate on either a bill or on amendments to it. Once recognized,
Senators may speak for as long as they wish. At times, the Majority
Leader seeks to negotiate voluntary unanimous consent agreements
to limit debate on a bill or on specific amendments. These are
known as time agreements. Once explained, or propounded, they
require only the silent approval of all present. However, as
with all unanimous consent practices in the Senate, a single
objection prevents their implementation.
Ending debate in the Senate is often the most challenging aspect
of the legislative process for the Senateís leadership. Short
of voluntarily yielding the floor, an individual Senator can
only be silenced through a formal procedure known as cloture.
The process of cloture takes 3 calendar days and 60 votes to
play out. It is easy to see why Majority Leaders prefer to reach
a negotiated settlement with a Senator conducting a filibuster,
the colloquial term used to describe an extended debate. The
power to use a filibuster as a tool to gain negotiating leverage
over both the policy agenda and legislative content again proves
that individual Senators can, and do, act apart from their party
and their leadership if they so wish.
The Senateís regular order places no restrictions on the amending
process. Not only may Senators offer as many amendments as they
wish, the amendments need not be relevant to the subject matter
of the bill. Germaneness of amendment is not a Senate requirement.
The leads to frequent quagmires on the Senate floor. Non-germane
amendments permit any individual Senator to introduce subject
matter into the discussion which the majority, for whatever
policy or political reason, has refused to schedule for independent
consideration. However baffling to those outside the Senate,
Senate tradition recognizes non-germane amendments as part of
the procedural advantages deliberately granted the minority
in that chamber.
Non-germane Senate amendments present a significant problem
for the House. The House requires germaneness. When it meets
with the Senate to reconcile differences between the two chambersí
versions of a bill at the end of the legislative process, it
will often insist that the Senate drop provisions unrelated
to the bill on the table. At times, the Senate is willing, but
at times, it is not. Non-germane amendments, therefore, have
the potential of seriously impeding progress toward enactment.
Reconciling House/Senate Differences
At some point, both chambers will have passed similar bills.
The House and Senate get to this point in one of three possible
ways. Most often, similar bills are introduced at about the
same time by allies in both chambers. Its sponsors then seek
parallel consideration of the legislation in both chambers.
Given the differing procedures and political climate in each
body, the House and Senate rarely achieve simultaneous enactment.
As a result, the chamber which finishes first (almost always
the House) sends its completed measure to the second. The second
chamber takes up its own bill, but passes it in the form of
a grand substitute amendment to the first chamberís version.
Now it can be said that both have passed the same bill, albeit
differing versions, and the next stage of the legislative process
can be reached.
Alternatively, the House could pass legislation first and send
it to the Senate. Having no similar bill in place, the Senate
debates and amends the House bill, then passes it. Finally,
but rarely, the Senate could pass legislation first and send
it to the House. With no comparable vehicle of its own, the
House debates and amends the Senate bill, then passes it. In
either case, both chambers have now adopted a bill with the
same bill number, although with different texts.
Once both chambers have passed similar versions of the same
bill, the differences must be reconciled before the legislation
can be sent to the President for his decision to sign or not
sign the bill into law. Differences between House and Senate
versions of a bill may be resolved most easily when one chamber
simply adopts the otherís version without change. Clearly, this
happens only on matters of little controversy. More regularly,
differences are resolved through one of two procedures: by a
process known as amendments between the Houses or by conference
In Amendments between the Houses,the bill
is traded back and forth between the chambers with each offering
amendments to the other bodyís version until one chamber adopts
the latest amendment of the other without change. Under the
regular order only two volleys per side are permitted. However,
if agreement is sensed as close, a special rule from the House
Rules Committee may be adopted to allow for an extra volley.
In the Senate, unanimous consent would be sought to do the same.
Because ending the process just shy of agreement would mean
killing a bill for which considerable momentum toward passage
has been demonstrated, most requested exceptions to the two-volley
rule are granted.
Conference committee negotiations are the
more well known of the two methods used to reconcile differences
between the two bodies. In the House, conferees or the managers
on the part of the House are appointed by the Speaker at the
recommendation of the committee chairmen involved. The appointment
of conferees, their number, and party composition, rest solely
with the Speaker, and cannot be challenged on a point of order.
House rules provide three main criteria for the selection of
conferees. A majority of the conferees must 1) generally support
the House version of the bill, 2) have been primarily responsible
for the legislation during House consideration, and 3) have
been proponents of any provisions which were adopted to the
bill on the House floor. Although by tradition the Speaker normally
takes into consideration the differing attitudes of the majority
and minority party toward the bill, that is not always the case.
At times the conferees have represented the ratio of majority
to minority members in the House overall, but at other times
they have been predominantly or exclusively from the majority
party in order to meet the three criteria stated above. It is
the Speaker who is given the determination of whether or not
a majority of the managers selected meet these criteria.
Competition to get on a conference committee is usually quite
fierce precisely because Members realize that successful amendments
adopted on the House floor may be sacrificed to the Senate by
House managers not in support of them. It is also the final
stage of the legislative process and the last opportunity to
delete or insert language in the bill.
In the Senate, the conferees are chosen strictly by the committee
chairmen going to conference. More than any other factor, seniority
determines conferee selection in the Senate.
Once configured, conference committees have few rules to follow.
The hands of the negotiators are left as free as possible. The
goal is, after all, to negotiate a consensus version of the
differing bills which a majority in each chamber can vote to
support. Successful negotiations require flexibility and freedom.
However, one important restriction is addressed in the rules
of both the House and Senate. Conferees are limited to matters
in disagreement between the two chambers. The rules state clearly
that conferees may not delete provisions identical in both bills
nor may they insert subject matter not found in either the House
or Senate-passed bill. Moreover, the conferees are asked to
stay within the range of differences, i.e. not exceed the boundaries
that define the House and Senate bills.
In actual practice, even these restrictions are violated in
the interests of achieving a consensus. If votes can be picked
up by inserting a new program not included in the earlier stages
of the legislative process, conferees will add it. If the political
support exists for a conference version that technically violates
the rules of procedure, exceptions to the regular order are
made in both chambers. Procedural correctness will give way
to political consensus.
Approval of Conference Report
Once a majority of the conferees have agreed upon the final
text of a compromise measure, the conference report is issued.
It contains both the legislative language of the final measure,
as well as the statement of managers -- an explanation of how
the compromise was reached between the House and Senate versions.
The conference report must be adopted by a majority vote in
both chambers in order to proceed to the President. If the first
chamber to take up the report fails to get the conference report
adopted, the second chamber never votes on it. Which chamber
goes first is usually negotiated. Although procedural rules
state the chamber which asked for the conference should act
last on the conference report, this rule is often ignored .
Most often the House goes first. This is because the rules of
the House permit its majority leadership to guarantee a vote
on the conference report. In the Senate, however, a vote on
final adoption is not guaranteed since a filibuster is always
possible. If the Senate cannot end the filibuster, no vote will
be held on the conference report. Another factor in the decision
of which chamber acts first on the conference report involves
the political outlook for the vote on final adoption. If adoption
looks certain in one chamber, but unclear in the other, the
chamber with the more favorable outlook will go first in order
to build political momentum toward passage in the second.
When both chambers have adopted the conference version, an
enrolled version is prepared by the enrolling clerk of the chamber
which originated the bill. Both the Speaker of the House and
the President of the Senate must sign the enrolled bill. Their
signatures attest to the version as accurate and identical to
the form which passed their respective chamber.
Once the legislation is presented to the President formally,
as an Act of Congress, he has 10 days after receiving it to
choose from four options:
Sign into law. By affixing his signature
to the legislation, the President signals his approval. The
bill becomes law.
Law without signature. Should the President fail
to sign the legislation within 10 days, it becomes law without
his signature, if Congress is in session. This option is chosen
if the President does not wish to associate himself strongly
with the bill, or if he knows the votes are not present in
Congress to sustain a veto.
Veto the bill. Within the 10 days, the President
may formally decline to sign the legislation and return it
to the chamber which originated it, along with a message containing
his reasons. The House and Senate then have the remaining
time in that Congress to schedule a vote on overriding the
veto. In each chamber, a 2/3 vote of those present is necessary.
If the vote fails to achieve 2/3 in the first chamber, the
second never receives the legislation, and need not act. If
a 2/3 vote is achieved in both bodies, the bill becomes law
notwithstanding the objections of the President.
Pocket Veto. Within 10 days, if the President
does nothing and Congress has adjourned, the legislation is
considered as vetoed. With Congress out of session, no opportunity
for a veto override vote presents itself and the bill is considered
If the stage of law is achieved, the legislation receives a
Public Law number, e.g. P.L. 106-39, which would be the 39th
bill enacted in the 106th Congress.
Changing Trends and Variations from the Norm
The traditional legislative process described here and taught
in schools across the country as a chronological timeline is
not always followed in legislating today. In fact, the more
complex, politically contentious, or significant a measure,
the more likely Congress will consider it in an exceptional
manner. Two important trends have emerged in recent years that
have redefined legislating and changed the predictable stages
of the legislative process.
Declining committee authority. When legislation
is considered crucial to the agenda defining a political party,
the party leadership in Congress has often assumed control over
its progress. Committees of jurisdiction, both their chairmen
and members, have at times been completely bypassed in favor
of ad hoc task forces appointed by the party leaders to forge
a political consensus on an issue. The resulting work product
is then transformed into a bill introduced by a party leader,
and brought directly to the floor without prior committee consideration.
In another variation, leaders have used a bill reported from
a congressional committee as their foundation, but held closed
door, by invitation only, drafting sessions to rewrite the measure
in a manner designed to collect as many votes for it as possible
from the majority caucus, or to appeal to the broadest spectrum
of the electorate.
Both legislative tactics bypass the traditional committee system
of initial consideration by a panel of issue specialists, and
have resulted in more and more measures being shaped on the
floor among a broader membership with a wider array of motives.
This has greatly complicated law-making.
Packaging legislation. Legislators have discovered
that combining separate measures into one large bill, called
an omnibus bill, enhances the odds for passage. Problematic
bills --the bitter -- are combined with pork barrel projects
and other popular provisions -- the sweet -- to create a package
more attractive than its component parts. Members are then faced
with the choice of voting for the 90% of the omnibus bill crucial
to the legislative agenda, e.g. appropriations funding the entire
government at once, or voting against the 10% of the package
they might truly disdain.
These huge, complex measures often come to the floor toward
the end of a congressional session, leaving little time for
thorough examination of sometimes thousands of pages of complex
legal and technical provisions. Members often complain about
their inability to adequately deliberate over complicated policy
proposals in the face of the momentum created for passage by
last minute measures brought to the floor in the final days
of a session.
Packaging has also been practiced as a high-risk tactic to
elicit approval from an oppositional President. Omnibus legislation
might at times persuade him to sign into law legislation he
would otherwise not sign if presented to him as a series of
individual measures. A presidential veto of an omnibus bill
can result in serious political consequences for both the Congress
and the White House, e.g. the shutdown of the federal government
in the face of failure to enact an omnibus appropriations bill.
However, in other instances, signing such a measure into law
can result in credit for both the President and the Congress
for cooperating to produce comprehensive results despite serious
political and policy conflict.
Both trends make it more difficult to hold the Congress accountable
for the legislation it produces. When the traditional legislative
process is circumvented or short-circuited, it becomes difficult
to know when and where the crucial decisions finalizing legislative
language were made. In turn, this makes it more difficult for
the electorate to know exactly whom to reward for policy success
or whom to punish for policy failure.
APPENDIX RESUME OF CONGRESSIONAL ACTIVITY
105th Congress: 1997 and 1998
|Bills and Joint Resolutions Introduced in House/Senate:
|Public Laws Enacted:
104th Congress: 1996 and 1995
|Bills and Joint Resolutions Introduced in House/Senate:
|Public Laws Enacted:
103rd Congress: 1994 and 1993
|Bills and Joint Resolutions Introduced in House/Senate:
|Public Laws Enacted:
102nd Congress: 1992 and 1991
|Bills and Joint Resolutions Introduced in House/Senate:
|Public Laws Enacted:
Concurrent resolutions and simple resolutions are excluded
since they do not rise to the level of law. Only bills and
joint resolutions become Public Law if enacted.
Congressional Record, Resume of Congressional Activity,
first issue of each Congress.
Legislative Database of the Library of Congress. 105th
Congress, 104th Congress, 103rd Congress, and 102nd Congress