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What does it take for a bill to go through the basic steps in both houses of Congress? What are the steps, in order, from bill proposal to the president signing it into law?

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There are certainly substantive differences between the US House of Representatives and the Senate, but the basic manner in which a bill becomes a law is the same.

Ideas for legislation can originate from any number of sources. Presidents submit legislation to Congress for consideration with the hope that the latter will pass the legislation and forward it back to the White House for the president’s signature. Legislation can originate in the minds of individual members of Congress or from collections of members such as exists in the myriad caucuses that exist in the House. It can originate in non-governmental organizations that are seeking changes in existing law or passage of new laws. Special interest groups routinely approach Congress about drafting and passing legislation consistent with the groups’ interests. Once legislation has been introduced in either chamber of Congress, however, the process remains the same.

Both the House of Representatives, which has 435 members, and the Senate, which has one hundred members, are too large to vet legislation and hold public hearings into the merits of individual bills. The committee structure dominant in both chambers exists, therefore, to manage the legislative process more effectively. When a bill is introduced, it is first referred to the committee with jurisdiction over the issue the bill addresses. Legislation pertaining to the agriculture industry, for instance, goes to the Committees on Agriculture; legislation addressing the issue of gun control is referred to the Committees on the Judiciary. When it comes to committee referrals, this is where a key distinction between the two chambers is evident. In the House, multiple committees can claim and receive jurisdiction over the same legislation. Gun control legislation goes to the Judiciary Committee, but other committees may also claim jurisdiction depending on the precise wording of the legislation. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform, for instance, holds hearings on gun violence and weighs in on any legislation on that issue. In the Senate, conversely, only one committee can claim jurisdiction over a bill, with the chamber’s parliamentarian making the final determination of which of the competing committees gets the bill.

Once a bill is in a committee, that committee holds hearings on the bill during which experts and those with a vested interest in the bill’s fate testify before members of the committee. The committee might let the legislation lie dormant, or it can vote it out of the committee either favorably or unfavorably. The bill then goes to the full chamber for a final debate and vote. Once both chambers of Congress have voted to pass the bill, it goes to the president for his or her signature. The president can either veto, or reject, the bill or he or she can sign it into law. A president can also ignore the bill despite its passage by Congress, a practice known as a “pocket veto.” In the event of a presidential veto, Congress can override the president’s decision through a two-thirds vote of approval of the bill in both chambers, a very difficult process. When the bill arrives on the president’s desk, he or she has ten days to veto it. Failure to do so within that ten-day period results in the bill becoming law. If the president rejects legislation but cannot return it to Congress because the latter is adjourned or not in session, the bill is “pocket vetoed” and will not become law. If Congress is in session when the president rejects the bill, it has the opportunity to override the veto by the aforementioned two-thirds vote.

Another element in the legislative process involves the manner in which a bill is introduced to Congress. A bill might originate in the House and Senate simultaneously, which obviously then involves consideration of the legislation concurrently in both chambers. If both versions of the bill are identical and passed, a simple process of merging the two bills occurs, and it is then sent to the president. If, as is common, there are differences between the House and Senate versions of a bill, conference committees are formed from each chamber to sit together and negotiate resolutions of each of those differences. Once an agreement is reached on all differences, the bill is again passed and sent to the president.

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