There are a total of 535 members of Congress. 100 serve in the U.S. Senate and 435 serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
A. Legislation is Introduced
— Any member can introduce a piece of legislation.
— Legislation is handed to the clerk of the House or placed in the hopper.
— Members must gain recognition of the presiding officer to announce the introduction of a bill during the morning hour. If any senator objects, the introduction of the bill is postponed until the next day.
B. Committee Action
— The bill is referred to the appropriate committee by the Speaker of the House or the presiding officer in the Senate. Most often, the actual referral decision is made by the House or Senate parliamentarian. Bills may be referred to more than one committee and it may be split so that parts are sent to different committees. The Speaker of the House may set time limits on committees. Bills are placed on the calendar of the committee to which they have been assigned. Failure to act on a bill is equivalent to killing it. Bills in the House can only be released from committee without a proper committee vote by a discharge petition signed by a majority of the House membership (218 members).
Steps in Committee:
- Comments about the bill’s merit are requested by government agencies.
- Bill can be assigned to subcommittee by Chairman.
- Hearings may be held.
- Subcommittees report their findings to the full committee.
- Finally there is a vote by the full committee — the bill is “ordered to be reported.”
- A committee will hold a “mark-up” session during which it will make revisions and additions. If substantial amendments are made, the committee can order the introduction of a “clean bill” which will include the proposed amendments. This new bill will have a new number and will be sent to the floor while the old bill is discarded. The chamber must approve, change or reject all committee amendments before conducting a final passage vote.
- In the House, most bills go to the Rules committee before reaching the floor. The committee adopts rules that will govern the procedures under which the bill will be considered by the House. A “closed rule” sets strict time limits on debate and forbids the introduction of amendments. These rules can have a major impact on whether the bill passes. The rules committee can be bypassed in three ways:
- Members can move rules to be suspended (requires 2/3 vote)
- A discharge petition can be filed
- The House can use a Calendar Wednesday procedure.
C. Floor Action
- Legislation is placed on the Calendar
• House: Bills are placed on one of four House Calendars. The Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader decide what will reach the floor and when. (Legislation can also be brought to the floor by a discharge petition.)
• Senate: Legislation is placed on the Legislative Calendar. There is also an Executive calendar to deal with treaties and nominations. Scheduling of legislation is the job of the Majority Leader. Bills can be brought to the floor whenever a majority of the Senate chooses.
• House: Debate is limited by the rules formulated in the Rules Committee. The Committee of the Whole debates and amends the bill but cannot technically pass it. Debate is guided by the Sponsoring Committee and time is divided equally between proponents and opponents. The Committee decides how much time to allot to each person. Amendments must be germane to the subject of a bill — no riders are allowed. The bill is reported back to the House (to itself) and is voted on. A quorum call is a vote to make sure that there are enough members present (218) to have a final vote. If there is not a quorum, the House will adjourn or will send the Sergeant at Arms out to round up missing members.
• Senate: Debate is unlimited unless cloture is invoked. Members can speak as long as they want and amendments need not be germane — riders are often offered. Entire bills can therefore be offered as amendments to other bills. Unless cloture is invoked, Senators can use a filibuster to defeat a measure by “talking it to death.”
- Vote. The bill is voted on. If passed, it is then sent to the other chamber unless that chamber already has a similar measure under consideration. If either chamber does not pass the bill then it dies. If the House and Senate pass the same bill then it is sent to the President. If the House and Senate pass different bills they are sent to Conference Committee. Most major legislation goes to a Conference Committee.
D. Conference Committee
- Members from each house form a conference committee and meet to work out the differences. The committee is usually made up of senior members who are appointed by the presiding officers of the committee that originally dealt with the bill. The representatives from each house work to maintain their version of the bill.
- If the Conference Committee reaches a compromise, it prepares a written conference report, which is submitted to each chamber.
- The conference report must be approved by both the House and the Senate.
E. The President
The bill is sent to the President for review.
- A bill becomes law if signed by the President or if not signed within 10 days and Congress is in session.
- If Congress adjourns before the 10 days and the President has not signed the bill then it does not become law (“Pocket Veto.”)
- If the President vetoes the bill it is sent back to Congress with a note listing his/her reasons. The chamber that originated the legislation can attempt to override the veto by a vote of two-thirds of those present. If the veto of the bill is overridden in both chambers then it becomes law.
F. The Bill Becomes A Law
Once a bill is signed by the President or his veto is overridden by both houses it becomes a law and is assigned an official number.
Glossary of Terms
House Legislative Calendars
The Union Calendar
— A list of all bills that address money and may be considered by the House of Representatives. Generally, bills contained in the Union Calendar can be categorized as appropriations bills or bills raising revenue.
The House Calendar
— A list of all the public bills that do not address money and maybe considered by the House of Representatives.
The Corrections Calendar
— A list of bills selected by the Speaker of the House in consultation with the Minority leader that will be considered in the House and debated for one hour. Generally, bills are selected because they focus on changing laws, rules and regulations that are judged to be outdated or unnecessary. A 3/5 majority of those present and voting is required to pass bills on the Corrections Calendar.
The Private Calendar
— A list of all the private bills that are to be considered by the House. It is called on the first and third Tuesday of every month.
Types of Legislation
Legislation (or statutory law) is law which has been promulgated (or “enacted”) by a legislature or other governing body, or the process of making a law.
— A legislative proposal that if passed by both the House and the Senate and approved by the President becomes law. Each bill is assigned a bill number. HR denotes bills that originate in the House and S denotes bills that originate in the Senate.
— A bill that is introduced on behalf of a specific individual that if it is enacted into law only affects the specific person or organization the bill concerns. Often, private bills address immigration or naturalization issues.
— A bill that affects the general public if enacted into law.
— A type of legislation designated by H Res or S Res that is used primarily to express the sense of the chamber where it is introduced or passed. It only has the force of the chamber passing the resolution. A simple resolution is not signed by the President and cannot become Public Law.
— A type of legislation designated by H Con Res or S Con Res that is often used to express the sense of both chambers, to set annual budget or to fix adjournment dates. Concurrent resolutions are not signed by the President and therefore do not hold the weight of law.
— A type of legislation designated by H J Res or S J Res that is treated the same as a bill unless it proposes an amendment to the Constitution. In this case, 2/3 majority of those present and voting in both the House and the Senate and 3/4 ratification of the states are required for the Constitutional amendment to be adopted.
— A procedure in the House of Representatives during which each standing committees may bring up for consideration any bill that has been reported on the floor on or before the previous day. The procedure also limits debate for each subject matter to two hours.
— A motion generally used in the Senate to end a filibuster. Invoking cloture requires a vote by 3/5 of the full Senate. If cloture is invoked further debate is limited to 30 hours, it is not a vote on the passage of the piece of legislation.
Committee of The Whole
— A committee including all members of the House. It allows bills and resolutions to be considered without adhering to all the formal rules of a House session, such as needing a quorum of 218. All measures on the Union Calendar must be considered first by the Committee of the Whole.
— A member or members that add his or her name formally in support of another members bill. In the House a member can become a co-sponsor of a bill at any point up to the time the last authorized committee considers it. In the Senate a member can become a co-sponsor of a bill anytime before the vote takes place on the bill. However, a co-sponsor is not required and therefore, not every bill has a co-sponsor or co-sponsors.
— A petition that if signed by a majority of the House, 218 members, requires a bill to come out of a committee and be moved to the floor of the House.
— An informal term for extended debate or other procedures used to prevent a vote on a bill in the Senate.
— Relevant to the bill or business either chamber is addressing. The House requires an amendment to meet a standard of relevance, being germane, unless a special rule has been passed.
— Box on House Clerk’s desk where members deposit bills and resolutions to introduce them.
— A 90 minute period on Mondays and Tuesdays in the House of Representatives set aside for five minute speeches by members who have reserved a spot in advance on any topic.
Motion to Recommit
— A motion that requests a bill be sent back to committee for further consideration. Normally, the motion is accompanied by instructions concerning what the committee should change in the legislation or general instructions such as that the committee should hold further hearings.
Motion to Table
— A motion that is not debatable and that can be made by any Senator or Representative on any pending question. Agreement to the motion is equivalent to defeating the question tabled.
— The number of Representatives or Senators that must be present before business can begin. In the House 218 members must be present for a quorum. In the Senate 51 members must be present however, Senate can conduct daily business without a quorum unless it is challenged by a point of order.
— An informal term for an amendment or provision that is not relevant to the legislation where it is attached.
— The original member who introduces a bill.
— An amendment that would replace existing language of a bill or another amendment with its own.
Suspension of the Rules
— A procedure in the House that limits debate on a bill to 40 minutes, bars amendments to the legislation and requires a 2/3 majority of those present and voting for the measure to be passed.
— A power that allows the President, a Governor or a Mayor to refuse approval of a piece of legislation. Federally, a President returns a vetoed bill to the Congress, generally with a message. Congress can accept the veto or attempt to override the veto by a 2/3 majority of those present and voting in both the House and the Senate.
Bill Tracking & Contact Information
Congress.gov — All Legislative Activities & Bill Status (Library of Congress)
C-Span.org — Live and Taped Sessions of Congress, Briefings & More
GovTrack.us — Non-governmental Source of Legislative Information & Statistics
House.gov — U.S. House of Representatives (Find & Contact Your Representative)
Senate.gov — U.S. Senate (Find and Contact Your Two Senators)
PopVox.com — Constituency Service (Track Bills & Contact Your Legislators)