Passing an American Bill into law

Help me with how this works

first the House passes a bill with a simple majority

Then the senate takes that bill and changes it to satisfy a 60% majority or kills it.

Then the president signs it or vetoes it.

I know its not that simple, but can you explain how else a bill is rejected or approved ?

The classic Schoolhouse Rock…

How a Bill Becomes a Law
(I’m on dialup, so I hope that’s the whole thing)

The Senate can also start the process rolling, the exception being that all appropriations bills must originate in the House.

Technically, you need a 3/5 majority in the Senate (60 votes) to cut off unlimited debate – in other words, to keep senators opposed to the bill from talking it to death (fillibuster). You only need a simple majority to actually pass the bill.

A few differences off the bat:

First, of course, (except for revenue bills, which must start in the house), a bill can start in either the senate or the house. The bill must pass in both houses, but need not do so in the order house—> senate.

On a related note–the senate and house must pass identical bills–usually, after each passes a bill, it goes to a conference committee to iron out the differences between the two bills–producing a final version that must then be passed in both houses.

Second, the senate doesn’t need to pass a bill by a 60% majority. A simple majority is needed for the senate to pass a bill.

60 votes are, however, a practical requirement to pass any contentious bill in the modern era. This is because the senate cannot even vote on a bill if it is being filibustered, and, at least in the current congress, it looks like any controversial bill will get filibustered. (This is because filibusters are now procedural devices–rather than the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington image of a senator actually standing on the senate floor speaking.)

60 votes are needed to end a filibuster through cloture. Hence, in practice the senate cannot vote on a bill until it has the support of 60 senators. (This also leads to the common tactic of senators voting for cloture on controversial bills sponsored by their party (so the bill will eventually pass), but voting against the bill–so they can argue in re-election campaigns that they opposed the bill.)

Again, revenue bills are odd–they can use a process called reconciliation–which makes them immune to filibusters, and hence making it possible in practice to have them pass the senate with 51 votes.

Finally, when a bill gets to the president, he can veto it, sign it, or refuse to sign it. If he refuses to sign it, it becomes law after 10 days. However, if congress is adjourned (i.e. is not sitting) on the day 10 days after the bill goes to the president, his refusal to sign it is a “pocket veto”–the bill does not become law.

Finally, a veto (but not a pocket veto) can be overridden by 2/3 majorities in both house and senate, so a veto doesn’t necessarily kill the bill.

Let’s say the bill in question starts its life in the House. The first thing that happens is that the relevant House jurisdictional committee or committees will look at the text of the proposed bill. These committees are divided among subject area, and depending on how wide-ranging the bill is, it may go through one or more committee. The committee debates the bill and may hold hearings where they ask various experts from within and outside the government to testify as to the merits and problems of the bill.

If the bill passes muster with the committee, they will vote to approve it and send it to the full House (called “reporting” the bill.) There are also procedures in both houses to bring a bill directly to the floor in the case of recalcitrant committees, but these require a supermajority already in favor of the bill.

The House will debate it further, add amendments, and may refer it back to other committees for further hearings and tweaking. Eventually, the whole House will vote on the bill. If it passes, they send it across the Capitol to the Senate.

There, the bill again goes to the proper Senate committee with jurisdiction over its subject matter. Likewise, the Senate committee can reject the bill, or approve it in which case it goes to the full Senate. If the bill is controversial, a 3/5 vote will be needed to end debate and thus prevent the risk of a filibuster. For routine or uncontroversial bills, this is generally not a concern.

If a simple majority of the Senate approves the bill, the chances are very good that it’s not exactly the same bill as the House proposed. This is because the Senate committees and floor debate would have added their own amendments and changes.

At that point, a Conference Committee is formed with members from both houses to reconcile the two bills via the great American art of compromises. If the conference committee is able to complete its work to its satisfaction, the bill again is sent to both houses for approval.

If that bill manages to get approved by simple majorities in both houses without getting amended to death, it will be sent to the President for his approval.

If the President vetoes it, then Congress can vote yet another time to override it with a 2/3 majority in each house.

Basically, someone sponsors a bill in the House. Depending on content, said bill is routed to a committee. If the bill leaves committee, it goes to the floor for debate. If debate ends, the bill goes for a vote on the floor.

On the Senate side, the process repeats.

If both versions of the bill pass, the versions must be reconciled. If the reconciliation process is successful, the final bill goes to POTUS for signing. If the POTUS refuses to sign, the bill is vetoed, and the Congress may vote to override the veto.

If POTUS signs the final bill, it becomes law.

Not quite.

  1. The bill can originate in either house, except for a revenue bill, which has to originate in the House of Representatives.
  2. The bill goes through a committee process, where a subset of the House or Senate decides whether to recommend it to the entire body. This may involve hearings, or not, depending on the bill. The committee can amend the bill.
  3. Once the committee sends the bill to the floor of the chamber, debate begins. Members can make amendments or speak on the bill.
  4. The main difference between the houses is that the Speaker of the House of Representatives can limit debate (e.g., “We’ll debate this bill for a three days, then vote on it.”). The Senate has no limit to debate. This leads to the practice of filibustering.
  5. Originally, a filibuster meant that a group would hold the floor indefinitely, speaking against the bill (and often interpolating all sorts of matter in order to keep speaking). Nowadays it’s procedural – one party says they plan to filibuster and everyone goes on the assumption they are doing it. The only way to stop a filibuster is to invoke cloture – ending debate. That requires a 3/5th majority (i.e., 60 votes). Some bills do pass with a simple majority (though with the polarization in Washington, that’s rare), either because they aren’t controversial, or because the party wants to save a filibuster for something else. Once debate is ended, a vote is taken. Note that you do not need to have 60 votes to pass the bill in the Senate – 51 is all that’s required.
  6. Once the bill passes both houses, it goes into a conference committee made of members of both houses to try to reconcile differences in the bills (remember, they can be amended). The committee agrees on a final bill which goes to the houses. A regular majority is all that is needed – there is no filibustering of conference committee bills.
  7. Once passed, the bill goes to the President. He can sign it, which makes it law, or he can veto it (reject it). If bill is vetoed, Congress can override with a 3/4ths majority in both Houses. If they override the bill becomes law.
  8. There’s also the special case of a pocket veto. If Congress recesses, and the president doesn’t sign the bill, it dies; Congress cannot override. These are rare.

A bill is introduced in either chamber (except taxes and appropriations, which must originate in the House). It gets referred to a committee (by the Speaker in the House, and (I think) the Senate Majority Leader in the Senate). That committee holds hearings and considers amendments, if it considers the bill a viable candidate for passage (if not, the bill is allowed to die in committee). The committee then reports its version of the legislation (or, in very rare instances, it can be discharged from the committee by the body that sent it to committee–either the House or the Senate).

It gets read a couple of times, possibly considered in the Committee of the Whole (a committee consisting of every member of the House; I’m not certain if this exists in the Senate and if it’s called the same thing), amendments are taken from the floor, etc. etc. The House Rules Committee will set the parameters of debate in the House of Representatives.

Finally, a vote is taken. Most legislation, in either chamber, requires only a simple majority, that is, one-half of those voting plus one(with a least a quorum present). If it passes, it is sent to the other chamber for consideration. Recall that because a bill can originate in either chamber (with exceptions like that noted above), it might thus be sent to the Senate or to the House.

That other chamber then considers it, much like as in the first. Then they vote. And again, usually only a simple majority is required (sixty is needed for a petition of cloture in the Senate, which is the device used to terminate debate/filibusters and put the bill to a vote). If it passes and the bills are identical–Great! It gets sent to the President. If not, a conference committee composed of members from the House and Senate is formed and they attempt to work out a compromise version that is sent back to both chambers for passage. At this time, the conference report (the name of the proposed compromise legislation) is not open to amendment–for obvious reasons.

If this conference report is passed by both, it is then sent to the President for signature (or veto). If the President signs it, the bill becomes a law. A veto is accomplished when the bill is returned, with ten days, exclusive of Sundays, after its passage in Congress, unsigned to the chamber in which it originated together with the President’s objections to the legislation. The Constitution requires this statement of objections, and if the President does not sign, but also does not object, the bill becomes law after the ten days, exclusive of Sundays, elapses. If it is vetoed, the Congress may override it by repassing the legislation, with a two-thirds majority in each chamber (note the higher passage bar on the second time around). Unless either chamber adjourns sine die (which, as a side note, requires the consent of the other chamber) before that deadline passes, which effectively vetoes the legislation. This latter process is called the “pocket veto.”

The other thing about pocket vetoes are that they can be prevented by congress. Congress decides when it adjourns–and (as in 2007 or 2008), it can hold pro forma sessions–meetings every couple of days specifically so that, technically, it hasn’t adjourned. This has the effect of preventing the president from using those powers he has when congress has adjourned (in that case, recess appointments to the judiciary, but also including the pocket veto).

As far as I understand it (which might not be very well - please correct me if I’m wrong!):

  1. A bill is proposed by a member of either house.

  2. It is first considered by a “standing committee”, which can decide to report the bill to the house.

  3. The house then votes to open debate on the bill; debates and maybe amends the bill; votes to close debate on the bill; and finally votes on whether to pass the bill or not. If the bill succeeds they forward the bill to the other house.

  4. The other house then votes to open debate on the bill; debates and maybe amends the bill; votes to close debate on the bill; and finally votes on whether to pass the bill.

  5. The bills passed by both houses have to be identical, so if they’re different at this stage then they are then sent to a “conference committee” to iron out the differences. Afterwards the ironed-out bill is sent back to both houses for a final vote of approval.

  6. This final bill then gets forwarded to the President who can either sign it or veto it. If he vetoes it, it gets sent back to Congress and they need a two-thirds majority to override the veto.

“Save a filibuster for something else”, what do you mean by that? Are there limits on how many filibusters an opposition can impose?

No (as a matter of senate rules.)

Historically, there were practical limitations on filibusters–filibusters were extreme because they stopped all business on the senate floor–they were, literally, one senator continuing to speak (and hence stopping anything else from going on in the senate)–there was a substantial cost to filibustering a bill, both politically, and personally for the senator who had to speak continuously.

Today, however, filibusters are “procedural”–they don’t require a senator to actually speak continuously, and do not prevent the Senate from discussing or acting on other bills–and so there is a far lower cost to a filibuster, and hence much less of an incentive for the minority not to filibuster a bill.

So why would anyone have to “save a filibuster for something else”?

There are political costs. If you adopt a scorched-earth policy, the majority is not going to negotiate with you. And for two years, your party will get absolutely none of its agenda passed while the majority makes you look like obstructionists par excellence. This of course will further diminish you at election time (recall, many people date the downfall of Newt Gingrich to the time he let the federal government shut down for two days during a budgetary agon with President Clinton; think of what basically shutting down the government for two years would do to your electoral fortunes!).

A filibuster has a significant cost in political capital. If you want moderates on the other side to work with you on your own project, it will damage your cause to use such an extreme tactic against theirs. That’s why filibusters are generally only used on the most controversial issues.

In general, I don’t think they do–that was what I was trying to say, at least.

Further to the extent that there is a point there, I wouldn’t describe it as ‘saving a filibuster’–but that there are costs of filibustering (though far less now than there used to be)–and that it (perhaps obviously) doesn’t make sense to filibuster a bill when the benefit of doing so is less than the cost of sustaining a filibuster.

Although much lesser since the “procedural” filibuster was created, there are some costs to filibustering. As others have pointed out, these include the political capital you need to sustain a filibuster–what you have to do to ensure 40 senators support the filibuster. They also include what the majority, and the voters will do if a senator consistently filibusters— filibustering a bill makes the majority less likely to compromise, without which you certainly can’t get bills passed, and in some cases, filibustering a bill can be used against a senator in re-election campaigns.

OK, it seems it was closer to 25 days (in two chunks) during November and December of 1995.

At least three posters have said that appropriations bills must originate in the House. That is not technically correct. It has become a custom never violated, but it is not Constitutionally required. All revenue bills, however, must originate in the House ( U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section7)

The House of Representatives disagrees.

What is the rationale for a president to choose between the two options in each of these cases:

a. sign vs. refuse to sign (congress in session) -> bill becomes law in both cases
b. veto vs. refuse to sign (congress not in session) -> bill does not become law in both cases

For a., if he doesn’t support the bill, why wouldn’t the president just veto it instead of not sign it and allow a bill he doesn’t support to become law?

For b., it seems that this is the only way that the president can prevent a 2/3 (or 3/4, not sure which is correct) override. Is that correct? Is that the only reason why a president would refuse to sign a bill rather than veto the bill when the congress is not in session on the 10th day?

And what happens if the president vetoes the bill when congress is not in session? Can it be re-voted on for an override?