Our Congress: A bill’s journey into law

A bill is a proposed law in Congress. Anyone with an idea for a bill may draft one, but it must be sponsored by a member of the House of Representatives or the Senate. Bills can be public, addressing groups of people, or private, concerning an individual, such as a grant of citizenship or an armed service decoration. Once a bill has a sponsor, it is placed in a box called a “hopper,” introduced by the majority floor leader of the House and assigned a number. (The majority floor leader is chosen by his or her party to represent that party in the Senate or House. The Senate Majority Leader for our 112th Congress is Harry Reid (D-NV) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is leader of the House. For more information on party leaders go to this page on the US Senate website.) After introduction, the proposed bill then goes to an appropriate committee for research and study. Informational hearings are held, and often the proposed legislation will be assigned to a subcommittee for further study. Next, the committee votes to report the bill, or to take no more action. If reported, a date is set on the calendar for a general debate on the floor of the House, with both parties receiving the same amount of debate time. The next step is the amending phase, where amendments to the bill are made, which can kill a bill or make it more palatable to the opposition. A lively debate can win notoriety and publicity for a representative. After amendments are made, the House votes, and if accepted the bill passes to the Senate, as bills must be approved by both chambers of Congress. The Senate is a smaller body than the House, with less formal rules, and time for debate is theoretically unlimited. This can lead to a filibuster, where a senator can speak for hours, as long as he or she can remain standing, in order to delay, defeat or amend a bill. When debate is finished, the Senate conducts a roll call vote to decide if the bill will pass or fail. If the “yeas” have it, the bill goes to the President to sign or veto. Hundreds of bills are introduced in each two-year Congressional session, although few make it out of committee for debate.