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Federal Legislative Resource Center

The Legislative Process: How Congress Works

Below is a broad outline of the legislative process. These materials make up the published record of Congress and are available either in print or microfiche (at a Federal Depository Library near you ) and/or online. For more in-depth information use " How Our Laws Are Made "— available from the Library of Congress. For a Kid's view of how the legislative process works, including information for parents and teachers try " Ben's Guide to the U.S. Government ".

Background Information

  • CQ Politics —CQ is a non-partisan news organization and publisher recognized for it's objective coverage of the workings of congress.
  • Washington Post. —As the major newspaper in Washington, the Post does an excellent job of covering politics and has a special section devoted to congressional activities. It includes profiles of members, tracks current debates and issues, and more. Their Political Browser will lead you to more resources on the web.

Introducing a Bill

Only members of Congress can introduce Bills. Once introduced, they are assigned a bill number, which is used to trace activity on that bill throughout the legislative process—introduction, committee consideration and markup, floor action, consideration in the other chamber—until it is signed into law and receives a Public Law number. Every bill is assigned a unique bill number, assigned consecutively as introduced (HR.1, HR.2, S.1, S.2, etc.), that is used to track the legislative process for each individual bill. Numbering begins again at the start of each new congress (every two years). The bill number can be used to track any bill text versions and their status in the legislative process, any relevant debate and floor statements, and any voting records. Bills may go through several bill versions before being passed. It is frequently useful to track the changes in bill text versions in order to see what changes are being made and by whom.

  • THOMAS (Search Bills and Resolution)—Provides bill text, status, and locators for all House and Senate bills since 1993.
  • GPO Access (Government Printing Office)—Provides the full text of bills, resolutions, and public laws. Full text of bills is available from 1993 to the present; public laws from 1995 to the present.

Committee Consideration

Once introduced and assigned a number, bills are immediately assigned to the committee and/or subcommittee charged with responsibility for that policy area. The committees and subcommittees may hold hearings, revise (or markup) draft bills, and recommend passage (or report the bill out of committee). The vast majority of bills "die" in committee and is not referred to the full House or Senate for consideration.

  • Hearings and testimony 
    This is the information-gathering phase of the legislative process—committees hear the testimony of people and organizations concerned about the policy outcome. During hearings, committees call on executive branch officials, "experts" in appropriate policy areas, and interest groups from the public and private sector, to testify to the merits of proposed legislation. Many—though not all—of the transcripts from hearings are published and available in print, microfiche, or (occasionally) electronic format. These documents can be particularly useful in tracking the stance of administration officials and the opinions of interest groups as well as understanding the positions of senators and representatives through the questions they pose. In addition to hearings, you may also find that there are committee "documents" and "prints". These are materials produced for use by the committee during its deliberations and can provide background and context for the issues being discussed.
    • House CommitteesSenate Committees —Use committee home pages to find hearings schedules and often text of the hearings. This can either be the oral testimony of the full record of hearings, including materials submitted by witnesses
    • GPO Access (Government Printing Office)—Most Congressional hearings are published two months to two years after they are held. Only hearings released to the Government Printing Office from the committees are made available on GPO Access.
  • Markup 
    As legislation is reviewed at the committee and subcommittee level, the language often changes. Committees hold sessions during which legislation is reviewed line-by-line and changes are made. These sessions are referred to as "markup." Thus a bill submitted to a committee is often very different from the bill reported out of committee. While transcripts of the deliberations from these sessions are not available, the changes made to the language of the bill are recorded. Examining the different versions of a bill and how it was "marked up" can be useful when studying the evolution of legislation.
    • THOMAS (Library of Congress)—once you have identified a bill number use the browse bill function to look at the various versions of the bill.
    • GPO Access (Government Printing Office)—use the browse bill function to locate various versions of the bill.
  • Reports 
    Committees are charged with making recommendations on the passage of bills. This process is called "reporting out. The "report" is a written statement by the committee detailing what the bill is designed to accomplish and why (or why not) the committee recommends passage. Generally, it is only when the committee is recommending passage that a bill is reported out. If the committee cannot reach consensus on the merits of a bill some members may write minority or dissenting views that will be included in the report. Reports are valuable in understanding a bill's "intent" and may be used by courts when determining legal issues related to federal laws.

There may be more than one report on any piece of legislation. In some cases, more than one committee in a chamber may consider the legislation. In other cases, you may find both a House and a Senate report. In addition, the House and Senate must reconcile differences in their respective versions of a piece of legislation, so a required conference committee may issue a report.

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    • THOMAS (Library of Congress)—THOMAS has committee reports from 1995 on.
    • GPO Access (Government Printing Office)—Generally has committee reports.

Floor Debate

Once a Bill is reported out, it moves to the floor for debate and possible amendment.. Record of this process is found in the Congressional Record.

Voting

Votes may be taken as voice vote, standing votes, or roll-call votes. Only in roll-call votes do you know how a particular senator or congressperson voted. Votes can be found in:

On to the Second Chamber

Once a bill has passed through the chamber where it was introduced (the House or the Senate), it is referred to the other chamber and a committee that may hold hearings, markup, and issue reports. This is followed by floor debate and voting. 

Follow the links above to track this activity. 

Conference Committees

Because a bill must pass both houses of Congress in exactly the same form, members from both chambers may need to form a "conference committee" to settle on final language. These committees often issue reports. Use the links above for reports to find this information. 
 

Signed into law

Once passed by both houses of Congress, the bill then goes to the President to sign into law or veto. 
Any statements by the President when a bill is signed into law or vetoed can be located in

A note about signing statements: Signing statements may be oral remarks made by the President at a signing ceremony or they may be written remarks. Written signing statements may go so far as to outline how the President interprets a law and how he intends to enforce certain provision of the law. 

Publishing Laws

Public Laws are numbered consecutively as they are passed. For example: P.L. 110-234. This indicates it was the 234th law passed during the 110th Congress. The laws can be found in:

  • Public and Private Laws of the United States —104th Congress, 1995 to date
  • Statutes at Large —2003-2006

Ultimately all laws passed are incorporated into the United States Code , which contains the complete corpus of federal laws that are currently in force, arranged by subject.