Resistance: How a bill becomes a law

Hello friends! Welcome to the latest edition of Resistance, on a subject near and dear to my heart: How legislation goes from dream in the corner of a Congresswoman’s eye to a signed bill on the president’s desk. If ‘How a bill becomes a law’ seems like a pretty basic topic to you and you’re rolling your eyes right now, er, sorry, maybe poke around in the archives?

If not, or if you have a vague but not totally clear understanding, please come a little closer, my friends. Because this is not just about the torturous process involved in making legislation happen. It is also about the need to have a discussion about when and where it’s appropriate to panic. We have a lot coming at us right now, legislatively speaking, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Rather than haring off after every single thing you hear about in Congress, conserve your resources, and hit where it matters.

Onward! Please note that this is a simplified version and I skip over a few rulesmaking issues along the way. An individual bill’s mileage may vary. Thank you.


Once upon a time, a lobbyist and a congressperson loved each other very much…well, okay, lobbyists aren’t always involved, but yes, someone has to sit down and come up with an idea. Maybe it’s part of a legislative agenda, in response to a constituent issue, under prodding from the White House, or in collaboration with a lobbyist. Someone sits down and drafts a bill, with help from their staff — often a lot of help, to carefully research the ramifications of the legislation and how it would actually work. (In fact, sometimes all the help, as representatives aren’t necessarily the ones personally writing legislation.)

Introduction and off to committee

Once a bill is all shiny and set to go, it gets introduced in the House or Senate (more about this in a minute). The bill is then referred to committee, and may be broken up and sent to a couple of committees, depending on the issues at hand and their complexities. The committee may even form a subcommittee. They can hold hearings, consult with federal agencies, and generally go over the material to decide if they think it is a good bill.

At this point, you have options. If you hear about a bill that concerns you and your representative is on the committee, you can contact their office and make a comment in support or opposition, articulating the nature of your concerns.

They can table the bill and never let it back on the floor, or they can mark it up with recommended changes and send it back out for discussion.

Floor action

And I ain’t talking about dancing. The committee thinks the bill is a generally good idea and sends it back out onto the floor for debate. During debate, various representatives can provide their input, including potential amendments.

At this point, you have more options. Once a bill hits the floor, you can contact your rep and ask for them to take a specific action, including opposing, supporting, or amending the bill.

Once debate is over, they can take a vote to pass or reject the bill as amended. But it’s not law just yet.

On to the other house

Many bills start out in the House of Representatives, but not always — sometimes it’s the Senate going through this process. When a bill passes, the other house needs to pick it up, going through the same states of committee consideration, floor debate, and voting. Sometimes the House and the Senate independently introduce substantively identical bills. Either way, a bill must pass both houses before it can be brought to the president.

When the bill hits the other house, you have an opportunity to contact your representatives again — once on the committee (if relevant) and again on the floor vote.

Conference committee

If the two bills are identical, the bill can be sent to the White House. However, discrepancies may have been introduced as a result of debate. Consequently, the bill has to go to conference committee, where people negotiate the differences and agree on a finished form of the bill that pleases both houses.

The White House

Once legislation is considered good to go, it’s sent for the White House for the president’s consideration. Presidents may sign bills into law, or not sign them and allow them to pass into law automatically after ten days. However, they can also take advantage of the pocket veto: If a bill is unsigned when Congress adjourns, it automatically fails. Presidents can also outright veto legislation, sending it back to Congress, which can accept the veto or attempt an override vote, which requires a 2/3 majority.

I tell you these things because I know that many people don’t know them, and I don’t think there’s a shame in that. If you just started getting interested in the mechanics of politics, you can hardly be faulted for not magically knowing everything there is to know — I don’t, and I’ve been a political animal since childhood. Even this very simple breakdown is missing some things, and it doesn’t always go down quite this way. But it’s important to know that over 90 percent of introduced bills fail to become law. That’s a lot of bills. People introduce bills that they know are going to fail for symbolic reasons, to make a bid for leverage, or for a variety of other purposes. So when you hear that a bill has been introduced, that doesn’t mean it’s going to pass. It might not make it out of committee. It might not make it through the other house.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t intervene, but keep track of where bills are in the pathway to becoming a law, and prioritise your actions accordingly. A bill that passed the House and is now on the Senate floor after clearing committee is a much bigger concern than a bill that’s been reintroduced to the House for the fifth time, after dying in committee every single time.

Image: Sky Dome, Eric B. Walker, Flickr