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Describe the legislative process in the United States. Go beyond general statements by providing details that demonstrate the complexity of the process. How different is the legislative process in the House and Senate? What is the most surprising thing that you've learned about the legislative process? Why do people sometimes compare the law-making process with the "sausage-making" process? Why do you think the Founding Fathers designed the process to be so complicated?

Quick answer:

The US legislative process is highly complex, partly because it demands input from so many parties—a necessary feature of a democratic system and a benefit if one's goal is to create a deliberative process that requires hearing from lots of diverging viewpoints.

Expert Answers

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One of my favorite ways to remember all the complex steps to the passage of a bill is to think of all the ways a bill can fail to become a law:

  • A member of Congress may decide not to introduce/sponsor a bill.
  • A committee might decide the bill cannot possibly pass.
  • Subcommittee hearings might reveal the bill won't do what it says it will, or will cause unexpected harm.
  • The subcommittee might decide not to recommend the bill for a full committee vote.
  • The committee might decide not to order the bill reported to the full chamber for a vote.
  • The chamber might vote it down.
  • The bill might pass in one chamber, but get voted down in the other.
  • Both chambers might pass slightly different versions of the bill, which can't be reconciled in a conference committee.
  • The president might veto the bill.
  • Congress may try to override the veto, but fail to get the 2/3rd majority needed to do so.

There's a famous saying that the two things you never want to watch being made are legislation and sausage. In both cases, it's because a lot of little details you'd never expect to see in the finished product wind up in the grinder, and the thing you started with (the original bill, a chunk of meat) probably won't look anything like the final result (the passed legislation, a sausage).

This process is complex, slow, messy, and cumbersome. And it's designed that way on purpose for several reasons.

For instance, requiring committees to handle bills allows more bills to be handled at a time, because the entire House or Senate doesn't have to read and consider every single bill that is ever introduced.

Holding subcommittee hearings allows the legislature to gather information from experts and people who will be directly affected by the bill before the bill can accidentally cause negative consequences to these groups. This step happens before the bill is given to the full House or Senate, so that legislators who aren't on that committee have some reassurance that experts have in fact weighed in.

Requiring both chambers of Congress to pass an identical bill guarantees that they agree on what it is they're trying to pass into law.

Allowing Congress to override a presidential veto with a supermajority vote guarantees that one person (the president) doesn't have complete and total control over legislation—but that legislation had better be considered necessary by 66.6 percent of Congress to get past the president's veto.

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