The legislative process in the United States is how a bill introduced in the United States Congress becomes a law. This page overviews this process so readers have a greater understanding of the process that intellectual property- and other Internet-based legislation must go through in order to become a United States law.
United States Congress
Congress is the legislative branch of the United States government. It has two branches, the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate. The House has 435 voting members, and the Senate has 100 voting members. Both chambers can consider legislation, and both chambers are required to approve a bill before it can be signed into law by the President of the United States.
How a bill becomes law
Bill is introduced
Legislation can be introduced, also called sponsored, in either the House of Representatives or the Senate, and only a member of one of those two bodies can introduce a bill for consideration. Those who support the proposed legislation can become co-sponsors of the bill as well. If legislation is considered officially introduced, it will be entered into the Congressional record and can advance further into the legislative process.
Once a bill is officially introduced, it is sent to relevant committees within the chamber of Congress it was introduced. For example, the Stop Online Piracy Act was sent to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration due to that committee’s oversight on intellectual property and Internet matters. Once in committee, the legislation is considered and can approve or reject the bill in its current state. If it is rejected, the bill dies in committee. If it is approved, it is sent to a vote by the full chamber.
Before its approval, however, the committee can send a bill to a subcommittee for additional consideration, as well as public hearings. Public hearings are generally held to invite experts in the subject of the legislation, as well as officials within government as well as members of the public. A subcommittee can make changes or add amendments to legislation before sending it back to the full committee, a process known as “mark up.” A bill can also die in subcommittee if they choose not to send it back to the full committee.
If a subcommittee-considered bill is sent back to the full committee, the committee will then vote on it, including with any proposed amendments and changes. If it is approved, it is sent to the full chamber for a floor vote.
Vote on the floor
With the bill out of committee, and after the publication of a committee report overviewing what the bill is about and its impact on existing laws and budgets, the legislation can be voted on by the chamber in which it originated. First, the bill must be scheduled for a vote. If the bill starts in the House of Representatives, the Speaker of the House and House Majority Leader decide if and when a bill will be voted on. In the Senate, the Senate Majority Leader makes that decision.
Prior to a vote, members can introduce new amendments and debate them and the full legislation. When the debate ends and the amendments have been approved or rejected, the full chamber votes on the legislation. If the bill is rejected, it will not advance any further. If the bill is approved, it is sent to the other chamber of Congress for their consideration.
Sent to other chamber
If legislation is approved in one chamber, it is then sent to the other chamber where it can be ignored, considered, and/or voted upon. The aforementioned legislative process is repeated. The second chamber can make changes to the legislation, or they can introduce their own version of the bill.
Once the second chamber has settled on their version of the legislation, or has chosen to keep the legislation as it was voted upon in the other chamber, the bill is voted upon. If it is rejected, the bill dies in that chamber. If it is approved, it either moves into conference committee if changes were made or is approved by Congress if no changes were made.
A conference committee is called if the bills passed by the two chambers of Congress are not identical. In this committee, members of the House and Senate work out the differences between the two bills. If they cannot do so, the bill dies in conference committee. If they are able to compromise and produce one piece of legislation, however, it is sent back to both chambers for final Congressional consideration. If the two chambers both approve of the compromise legislation, then the legislation is officially approved by Congress.
Congressionally approved legislation is sent to the President of the United States for final consideration, and the President can either sign the bill into law or veto it. If the President signs the legislation, it officially becomes a United States federal law. If the President vetoes the legislation, it does not become law.
If the President vetoes legislation, Congress has the authority to override that veto. To override a Presidential veto, the bill requires a 2/3 vote by the House and the Senate. Such instances of veto overrides are rare. However, if the Congress does override a veto, the bill becomes law without the President’s signature. If they do not override the veto, the bill dies.
There is also a process that treaties, such as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), must go through in order to be ratified by the United States. First, treaties with the United States are negotiated and signed by the President of the United States, or by a Presidential appointee. Once the treaty is signed, that does not make it officially ratified by the United States. It must then be approved by a supermajority of Senators. If it is not ratified by the Senate, the United States is not bound by the terms of the treaty. If it is ratified, then the United States is bound by the terms of the treaty and, therefore, subject to its international law.
- How a Bill Becomes Law by Schoolhouse Rock