Citizen Action Kit: How a Bill Becomes a Law

The Physicians Committee

Citizen Action Kit

How a Bill Becomes a Law 

A bill must pass through several steps before it becomes a law. Typically tax-related and budget bills are initiated in the House of Representatives, as the process below describes, but this is just one of many ways a bill may become a law.

1. A bill can be initiated in the House when a Representative sponsors its introduction by placing it in a box, called the “hopper.” After it has been introduced, the bill receives a legislative number with “H.R.” It is then distributed to all Representatives.

2. The bill is assigned to a committee based on its subject. The committee may do research into the issue and hear from experts and people interested in the issue. The committee either releases the bill with a recommendation to pass it (“reporting it out”), revises the bill before releasing it, or puts it aside, which prevents the House from voting on it (“tabling”).

3.If the bill is released, it is placed on a calendar of bills awaiting action by the full House. The House Rules Committee determines how much debate and how many amendments will be allowed for the bill.

4. The bill goes to the entire House for consideration on the floor. If a majority of Representatives vote in its favor, it goes to the Senate.

5. In the Senate, the bill must have a Senator as its chief sponsor who introduces the bill, which receives a legislative number that starts with “S.”

6. The bill is assigned to a committee by the chief sponsor. That committee may hold a hearing and then either releases or tables the bill.

7.The bill goes to the entire Senate for consideration. If the debate reaches a conclusion, the bill is voted on. If a majority of Senators vote for the bill, it passes. There are more procedural hurdles to reach a vote in the Senate, so often this process can be slow and many bills will stall before reaching the Senate floor.  Often, it takes 60 senators to agree before a piece of legislation is considered on the Senate floor.

8. In either the House or the Senate, members may offer amendments to the bill.  If the two approved versions of the bill are different, it goes to a conference committee consisting of members from both the Senate and the House. This committee works out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, then sends one unified bill back to both bodies for a final approval.

9.The bill is sent to the president to either approve or veto. If the president vetoes the bill, it can still become a law if two-thirds of the Senate and two-thirds of the House vote to override the veto.

It may take years for a bill to successfully go through this process. At the end of each congressional term, any bills that have not been voted on are lost and the process must start again from the beginning in the following term.

However, the more support a bill gains in a term, the greater its chances are for being accepted in the following term. This is why it is important to gain support for a bill even if it clearly will not be voted on in the current term.

Find more details about how a bill becomes a law here>

See a detailed diagram of the process here>