How a Bill Becomes a Law
In order for Volunteers to be effective in political action for the fire and emergency services, it is important for them to understand the legislative process and the route that a bill must travel before it’s enacted into public law. This section is designed to illustrate the legislative process.
In the House, bills introduced will have the following designations appear before the bill number:
- H.R. stands for House of Representatives and designates a bill originating in the House.
- HJ. Res. designates a House Joint Resolution. Both H.R. and HJ. Res. become law when passed by both Houses and signed by the President.
- H. Con. Res. designates a House Concurrent Resolution, which must be approved by both Houses. A House Concurrent Resolution does not require the President’s signature and it does not have the force of law. Generally used to express Congressional sentiment.
- H. Res. designates a simple House Resolution, the authority of which extends only to the House itself and does not have the force of law.A House Resolution is used to change House rules and express House views. In the Senate, bills introduced will have the following designations appear before the bill number.
- S. Stands for Senate and designates a bill originating in the Senate.
- SJ. Res. designates a Senate Joint Resoluton. Both S. or a SJ. Res. become law when passed by both Houses and signed by the President.
- S. Con. Res. designates a Senate Concurrent Resolution, which must be approved by both Houses. A Senate Concurrent Resolution does not require the President’s signature and does not have the force of law; it is generally used to express Congressional sentiment.
- S. Res. designates a Senate Resolution, the authority of which extends only to the Senate itself and does not have the force of law. A Senate Resolution is used to change Senate rules and express Senate views.
The most critical step in the legislative process is the committee system. After a bill is introduced, either the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader will refer the bill to the appropriate committee that has jurisdiction over the major issue involved in the bill. Sometimes bills are written in such a way as to ensure that they will be assigned to a specific committee to ease passage.
In the House, bills may be referred to more than one committee because of the subject matter of the bill. This is called a joint referral.
Once a bill is referred to committee, the Chairperson of that committee usually assigns the bill to the appropriate sub-committee where hearings are held on the issue and the bill is carefully examined in-depth. This is the best opportunity to put “on the record” the views of the executive branch, experts, other public officials, supporters and opponents of the legislation. It is at a hearing where testimony can be given in person or submitted as a written statement.
On issues affecting the fire and emergency services, the NVFC will almost always testify before the subcommittee and present the NVFC’s view of how the legislation will impact the fire and emergency services, and why the NVFC opposes or supports the particular legislation being considered.
After the subcommittee concludes its hearings, the measure then goes through mark-up. It is at the mark-up where a subcommittee goes through the entire bill, word by word, considering amendments, deleting sections, and revising the language.
At the conclusion of the mark-up, the subcommittee votes on whether to report out or table the revised bill. Tabling a bill is a procedure used to kill the measure. If the bill is voted on favorably, it is then reported out of the subcommittee and referred to the full committee for further consideration.
After the full committee reviews the bill, it too has the option of holding its own hearing and mark-up. The committee can decide to take no action (table the bill), vote not to report out the bill (kill it), or report the bill out favorably. If the bill is reported out favorably, it must then be scheduled for floor debate in either the full House or Senate, depending on its origin.
Chairmen or Chairwomen of the committees and the subcommittees have considerable control over their respective groups, as they have the authority to set the agenda for bill considerations. If the Chairperson does not support the bill referred to his or her committee or subcommittee, the Chairperson can usually prevent the bill from being acted upon. Tactics to kill a bill include refusing to schedule a hearing, holding a hearing but never conducting a markup, or never scheduling a vote. This power is not absolute. There are procedures to circumvent an unreasonable chairperson.
In the House of Representatives, the Rules Committee schedules legislation for consideration on the House floor and sets the length and terms of debate. This is referred to as granting the rule, and can often determine whether a bill ever sees floor action and whether (and how many) amendments can be offered. Once the full House adopts the rule, the majority party leadership decides when to debate and vote on the bill. In the Senate, bills go on the Senate calendar and are scheduled for debate by the majority leadership. There is no time limit on debate in the Senate, unless agreed upon by unanimous consent.
After a bill has been debated, and possibly amended on the floor of either the House or Senate, it then goes to a vote. Voting may be by voice, by standing division or by recorded roll call. If approved by one chamber (House or Senate), the bill is sent to the other chamber where it again moves through the committee procedure. If it is approved by the other body without any changes, it is sent to the President for his signature.
If both bodies pass different versions of a bill, both bills are sent to a Conference Committee. Senate and House Committee Members who first considered the legislation are appointed by their respective chamber’s leadership to sit on a Conference Committee. The Conference Committee works to reconcile differences between the two versions and agrees to a compromise bill, called a Conference Report.
If the Conference Committee agrees on a compromise bill, it is sent back to the full House and Senate for approval one final time. No amendments can be added or changes made in the bill, it must be voted yea or nay. This is termed enrolling the bill. If the conference committee is unable to reach agreement, the legislation dies.
A numerical majority in both the House and the Senate-a quorum-must be present before official business can be transacted. Fifty one Senators and 218 House members constitute those majorities. Most votes in Congress are by simply majority. Certain actions require a two-thirds vote such as adoption of a resolution to amend the Constitution, overriding a Presidential veto and suspension of the rules in the chamber. Either chamber may return a bill to committee by a simple majority vote.
When Congress passes a bill it sends it to the President for his signature or veto. The President must act on all bills sent to him within 10 days. During this period there are several actions the President can take:
- Sign the bill into law.
- Allow the bill to become law without his signature. If the President does not sign the bill or veto it within ten days, the bill becomes law without his signature.
- Veto the bill. The President vetoes a bill by announcing he will not sign the bill and sending it back to Congress. Usually the President’s veto message indicates his objection to the bill. A veto can be overridden with a two-thirds majority vote of each House of Congress. If the veto is overridden, the bill becomes law without the President’s signature. If the two-thirds vote is not reached in both Houses, the bill dies. Congress can modify the vetoed bill and send back a new bill to the President for his signature.
- Pocket veto. If there are fewer than ten days left in the legislative session before adjournment, the President can kill a bill simply by letting the legislative calendar expire without actually vetoing it. This allows the President the option of not having the bill overridden since Congress will be out of session. This procedure is called a pocket veto.