I’m Just a Bill: Understanding the Journey of New Laws in America

Most Americans learn about the process by which our country passes laws in middle school when we study the Constitution.  The separation of powers is clearly outlined; any bill must be voted upon by both chambers of the legislative branch and signed by the executive before it becomes the law of the land and is enforced by the judiciary.

Steps for a Bill to Become a Law

It’s a simple process, at first blush, but, ultimately, the framers left many specifics up to future generations for interpretation. Today, proposed legislation must pass through a labyrinth of committees and dozens of lawmakers’ hands before it ever has a shot of being approved by the president and becoming law. While most of us have a general grasp on how this works, there are many steps in the process which remain opaque and are generally misunderstood by anyone except professors, Washington lobbyists, and the lawmakers themselves.

Modern lawmaking involves an incredible amount of politics, fundraising, deal-making, and, above all, compromise in order for even the most agreed-upon bills to become law. That said, most bills roughly follow a common path on their way to the president’s desk, and understanding this step-by-step progression is important for any civic-minded citizen.

Ideas Can Change the World

Every bill starts off as an idea in someone’s mind. Traditionally, a congressman in the House of Representatives or a senator would be the one to write and propose a new law, but anyone with the time and know-how can draft a bill. Law constituents or activist groups might band together with lobbyists in order to draft a bill, and, sometimes, the president and his team will put forth a bill.

Regardless, a bill is where it all begins and, without a strong and well thought-out idea, there’s little chance of said bill going anywhere.


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Introduction in Congress

Once the potential legislation is drafted, it may be introduced by any member of the House of Representatives or the Senate. Introduction is an important part of the process and, here, begins bill’s lengthy trial. More than twenty thousand bills are introduced during each term of congress, with only about ten percent of those ever reaching the president’s desk and becoming the law of the land.

In the House, introducing legislation is as simple as placing the bill in the hopper, which is a box on the House Clerk’s desk. The process in the Senate is a bit more involved; senators must announce the introduction of their bills on the floor during the morning hour, which then opens the legislation to opposition from other senators. Any opposition to the bill will postpone introduction until the following day, which usually doesn’t bode well for that legislation’s future on the hill.

Committee Action (or Inaction)

Congress Is Broken Up Into Several CommitteesHere’s where it starts to get complicated. Both houses of Congress are broken up into numerous committees which oversee different aspects of running the country, which then, in turn, are divided into smaller subcommittees which deal with specifics.

For example, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry is divided into five subcommittees, including Commodities, Risk Management, and Trade; Rural Development and Energy; and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, and Agricultural Research.

When a bill is introduced in congress, it will be referred by the Speaker of the House or the presiding officer of the Senate to the appropriate committee and subcommittees for review and debate. A whole bill might be referred to multiple committees if its reach spans numerous areas of law, or it may be parted out and given to different committees which will each review and debate its specific pertinent aspects.

Washington DC lobbyists work to impress and influence lawmakers’ decision-making during this part of the process, suggesting changes and pressuring key members of Congress to act and vote in line with their supporters.

During the committee phase, representatives and senators from both sides of the political divide will do battle over the details and minutiae of the legislation, debating its merits and proposing any changes or amendments as they see fit.

Subcommittees report their findings back to the full committee, and the full committee will vote on whether to send the bill to the floor for voting. If enough amendments have been put in place to have significantly changed the original wording or spirit of the bill, the committee may order the introduction of a “clean bill,” starting the process over again by introducing the amended bill as an entirely new piece of legislation.

Few pieces of legislation ever make it past the committee phase, as lawmakers may intentionally table or stymie a bill’s progress here with relative ease. If a bill introduced in the House passes committee, it will then be sent to the Rules Committee, which determines the rules under which the legislation will be debated on the floor.

On to the Floor

The House of Representatives and Senate Vote on a BillIf a bill survives the scrutiny of committee examination and amendment, then it’s on to the floor of the House or Senate for debate and voting.

In the House, debate among members on the floor is limited by the rules put forth by the Rules Committee prior to floor action; these dictate the amount of time spent in discussion, as well as the format for said discussions and debates. Equal time is given to proponents and detractors of any specific legislation, and, while amendments may be offered and voted upon at this stage, they must be deemed pertinent and applicable to the bill in question.

The Senate’s rules for debate are much more lax and are functionally unlimited unless cloture is invoked, which requires a three-fifths majority. This is where you hear about filibusters, where bills are “talked to death” on the floor during debate as the clock runs out, and about huge amendments which fundamentally alter the content and impact of proposed legislation.

Lobby firms and citizen’s action organizations can attempt to push forth their agendas here, since entire bills may be added on as amendments to other bills under floor debate in the Senate.

Once debate is over, a vote will take place on the floor. If the vote passes the chamber of Congress where the legislation in question originated, it will then be sent on to the other branch to undergo the entire process again.

If the bill fails to pass in both the House and the Senate, then it is functionally dead in the water; if it does pass, a Conference Committee comprised of key appointees from both houses of Congress will convene to parse over any differences between the version of the bill which passed the House and the version which passed the Senate.

Sometimes, these differences are small—issues of punctuation or syntax; other times, the two houses end up passing wildly disparate versions of the same legislation and much work must be done to compromise on specifics.

The Executive Desk

The President is the Last Person to Sign Off on a BillIf the Conference Committee’s compromises are voted upon favorably by both the House and the Senate, the bill is then sent to the president for review. The president’s signature on a bill which has passed through the House and the Senate means that this bill is now federal law in the United States.

If the President does not sign said bill within ten days while Congress is in session, it then becomes law by default. However, if Congress adjourns before ten days have passed and the president does nothing with the bill, then the bill does not become law; this is referred to as a “pocket veto,” and is generally seen by lawmakers and DC lobbyists  as a more passive method by which to stymie a bill’s progression.

The president may also veto legislation outright, as per his powers outlined in the Constitution. In this case, the bill is sent back to the chamber of Congress in which it originated, along with a note from the president outlining the reasons behind his veto. In this case, the bill can still become law if both the House and the Senate override the president’s veto by a two-thirds majority vote.