Cookies on Pinsent Masons website

This website uses cookies to allow us to see how the site is used. The cookies cannot identify you. If you continue to use this site we will assume that you are happy with this

If you want to use the sites without cookies or would like to know more, you can do that here.

Procedure for passing laws in the United States

The main US legislative body is the Congress, which consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives. The Senate is composed of 100 Members, and each State is represented by two senators. The...

The main US legislative body is the Congress, which consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives. The Senate is composed of 100 Members, and each State is represented by two senators. The House of representatives is composed of 435 Members, who are elected every two years. Each State is represented in the House according to its population.

Legislative proposals can take the form of bills, joint resolutions, concurrent resolutions and simple resolutions.

Bills

Bills are the most common form of legislative proposals and can originate in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. All bills for raising revenue should originate in the House of Representatives, however the Senate can propose or concur with amendments. In order to become law, bills must be agreed in an identical form by both  bodies and receive presidential approval. Most legislative proposals of any form are introduced to the House of Representatives.

Joint resolutions

Joint resolutions are very similar to bills and can also originate in either the House of Representatives or in the Senate. However, joint resolutions that propose amendments to the constitution are not presented to the President for approval. Instead, they must be approved by two-thirds of both bodies and submitted to the states for ratification.

Concurrent resolutions

They are not presented to the President for approval but become law on approval by both bodies. Concurrent resolutions usually regulate administrative issues regarding the operations of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Simple resolutions

They regulate issues related to the operation of either the House of Representatives or Senate. They are not presented to the President for approval.

Introduction and referral to committee

Bills can be introduced by any Member in the House of Representatives, and they may have an unlimited number of co-sponsors. The proposed bill is assigned its legislative number and then it is referred to the committee which has jurisdiction over the particular area of law. Then it is printed in its introduced form.

Consideration

This process is initiated by a public hearing, where the committee members hear various views on the proposed legislation. A transcript of the testimonies is taken during the hearings, and it is made available for inspection in the committee office.

After the hearing, the bill is considered in detailed in a session which is known as the “mark-up” session. At this stage, the members of the committee can propose amendments and vote for or against them.

Finally the committee determines by vote what further action should be taken on the proposed legislative measure. It can be reported (with or without amendments) or tabled, which means that no further action will occur. In the case of extensive amendments the committee usually reports a new bill, which incorporates the all the approved changes (“clean bill”). The Committee Report is the document that explains the purpose and the scope of the bill, and the reasons for its approval.

House Floor consideration

Most legislative measures proceed to this stage after they have been reported by a committee. Sometimes it is possible that they can be brought to the Floor directly. The procedure in the full House is regulated by “rules”. Rules are simple resolutions that determine the debate time and whether amendments will be offered.

After the debate, the House votes for or against the bill, or decides to “recommit” it to a committee for consideration.

Senate stage

After the bill has been approved by the House, it must be submitted to the Senate for consideration. The bill cannot be presented to the President for approval unless both bodies have agreed on the same final draft. If the Senate makes changes to the draft, it must return to the House for further consideration and amendments. This procedure can be extremely lengthy. For this reason, usually the two bodies appoint a conference committee with both House and Senate members. The conference committee is responsible for negotiating and resolving the differences. Finally, when both bodies reach an agreement, the final version of the bill returns to the House and the Senate for vote on final passage.

Presidential action

The bill that has been voted by both the House and the Senate is presented to the President for approval. If the President signs the bill, it becomes law. The President has the right to refuse to sign. In this case, the President must return a bill with objections to Congress within 10 days (excluding Sundays) after the bill was presented for approval. If the President fails to return the bill, it becomes law as if it had been signed.

The Congress has the right to prevent a bill’s return by adjournment. In this case the bill cannot become law, even if the President has not sent objections to the Congress. This procedure is known as “pocket veto”. The extent of pocket veto authority is disputable and it has not yet been determined by US courts.

See: Further information on US legislative procedure (on infoUSA website)

Join My Out-Law

  • See only the content that matters to you
  • Tailor Out-Law to your exact needs
  • Save the most useful content for later reading
  • Tailor our weekly eNewsletter to your interests

Join My Out-Law

Already signed up to My Out-Law? Sign in