How a Bill Becomes Law

Someone once said passing a Bill in Congress is worse than watching them make sausage.

At its best the process is convoluted and designed to be troublesome. Our forefathers saw this as a way to keep only the best ideas being turned into law. The poor ideas would drop by the wayside as they were debated over and over again.

Over the years, Congress has invented ways to get around the original system through such things as proxy voting, closed meetings and one political party just plain defecating on the other. As a result, we have seen some pretty bad ideas turned into law.

Surprisingly many adults have no idea how a law is made and, unfortunately, don't care. But I am assuming you care or you wouldn't have read this far.

So let's do a little Government 101 and walk through the process. If nothing else, it will give you a little something to use in your next conversation at the coffee shop.

Congressman or Senator X come up with some bright idea the country just can’t live without (and they think they can’t get re-elected without). For our little drill we will call the idea “Z” and assume it is introduced in the House.

Congressman X writes out idea Z in the form of a BILL. The BILL is then filed with the House and given a number. At that point a decision is made regarding what Committee has jurisdiction over the subject matter in BILL Z. (A firearms issue most likely will go to the Commerce, State and Justice Committee (DOJ) as it has jurisdiction over firearms laws)

Once BILL Z arrives at a committee it will then be handed on down to the appropriate sub-committee that handles the section of the law BILL Z will apply.

The sub-committee, at the pleasure of its Chairman (The Chairman can kill BILL Z at this point), will discuss the merits of BILL Z, make any changes needed and then vote on Z. If BILL Z passes the sub-committee (it is on extreme life support) it will then go to the full Committee.

Again, at the Full Committee's Chairman’s pleasure BILL Z will either die or go to the Full Committee for discussion and changes. (This is the process you commonly hear referred to as “markup”. My wife thinks that is something they do in a store the night before a big sale.) The Full Committee will vote on BILL Z. If Z passes it will then go to the “Calendar” to await action on the House floor. If it fails the vote, a requiem mass is held at midnight for poor Mr. Z and his widow.

Once BILL Z is placed on the Calendar the Speaker of the House can kill it or take Z off life support, upgrade its condition to “stable” and allow BILL Z to come to the House floor for a vote AFTER the Rules Committee passes a rule that governs the debate on BILL Z.

The Rules Committee, through a vote controlled by the majority political party, will determine how much time will be allowed for debate on BILL Z, the amount of time allocated to each side of the debate, who will control the time, who can speak either for or against BILL Z, how many, if any, amendments will be allowed, what those amendments will be allowed or barred to contain and when BILL Z can go to the House Floor.

At this point we can say BILL Z is in “stable but guarded” condition.

Now BILL Z has arrived on the House Floor! This is its time in the spot light, CSPAN and the source of hundreds of press releases both for and against!

Undoubtedly, there are millions glued to their TV sets at home watching the sparkling and edifying debate that is swirling around the House floor! At least the Congressman that sponsored BILL Z hopes for all this from the people he/she hopes will re-elect them.

Finally those magical words ring out in the House Chamber as bells ring and pagers go off in Members offices, “This will be a fifteen minute vote. Members are advised this is a fifteen minute vote.”

After fifteen minutes, maybe more if the Speaker feels they have to twist some more arms to get the vote to come out to their satisfaction (I personally remember one fifteen minute vote that was held open for more than an hour while the Speaker twisted arms to get the result he wanted.) the vote is announced.

One more opportunity for BILL Z to live or die.

Hooray, the vote comes out in Z’s favor! Hold the horses, BILL Z is only half way home.

BILL Z will now languish until such time as the Senate can go through the same process just described with the House version of BILL Z.

For sake of argument (and to save a little typing/reading) let us assume that the Senate has already passed their version of BILL Z.

We have now arrived at the point where it is time for the old play, “DIRTYWORKS AT THE CROSSROADS”.


A select group of Congressmen and Senators are picked by the leadership to represent their respective bodies at the conference meeting. Prior to this meeting, the joint staffs from the House and Senate have gone through BILL Z and laid out all the things that are identical in each BILL. The differences between the two versions are brought to the table.

Let the auction, oops I mean bargaining begin!

It is at this point everyone with an interest in BILL Z is focused in like a laser. This group includes, but is not limited to, the White House, lobbyists, staff, media and the Congressmen and Senators that really care about the BILL or see it as a ticket to re-election.

Since smoking has been banned in all Federal Buildings you do not find the smoke filled rooms of yore (some Members do ignore the rule and cigar smoke can be detected from time to time). Now you are starting to find locked doors, secret meetings, deals being made, backs being stabbed, items added and taken away from the original BILL Z.

This is where the nasty work and the fine print find their mischievous and magical entrance into BILL Z’s language.

Once everyone has agreed (more likely worn out, exhausted, deprived of sleep and decent food for days as well as any meaningful contact with their families) the two versions of BILL Z are now identical and they are then “conferenced” (merged) into a House version and a Senate version.

BILL Z then goes back to the two respective bodies and a vote is taken on the “Conference Report”.

Providing that both the House and Senate approve the conference report the final version of BILL Z awaits the signature of the President. At this point the President can sign it and make it become law, he can veto it thus sending it back to the House and Senate where a 2/3 majority is needed for passage or he can just ignore it (pocket veto).

For sake of argument, we will say the President signs the bill. (Another press op)

The offices of the House and Senate members that want to take personal credit for passing this landmark piece of legislation crank up their respective press operations and explain in glowing terms how they were the key to the success of BILL Z. We will hear how BILL Z will provide millions of new jobs, stimulate the economy, cure the heartbreak of psoriasis, won’t rip, run, tear or smell bad in the summertime. America has been served! (Blow trumpets and set off some fireworks at this point, might want to wait until you are outside of your office.).

At this point the new program or whatever contained in BILL Z has only been AUTHORIZED. Without funding, BILL Z is not going anywhere, nowhere, nothing, nada, en ninguna parte, rien nulle part, zip!

In order for the new program Z to be operative it must now be funded. The entire process we just walked through, has to be repeated only this time we are looking for an APPROPRIATION rather than AUTHORIZATION.

The number of AUTHORIZED programs in Congress far outweighs those that have received APPROPRIATIONS.

For example; there are millions and millions of acres of new National Park land that have been authorized to be purchased, yet set idle and in the hands of the original owners. Some of these areas were authorized fifteen, twenty years ago.


Congress has not seen fit to appropriate the funds for their purchase.

There is a huge difference between having a program just authorized than having one that has been authorized and appropriated. One is dead and the other is alive.

So the next time Senator Fog Horn or Congressman Snake Oil start bragging about all they have done during one of your town meetings just stand up and ask; Is the program authorized? Is the program funded? A simple "yes" or "no" answer will suffice.