Before a bill becomes a law, it must pass both houses of Congress and be signed into law by the President. It may begin its journey at any time, but it must be passed during the same congressional session in which it was proposed, within a period of one year. If it does not complete the process, it is dropped, and can only be revived through reintroduction and going through the whole process again.
There are many opportunities to kill a bill before it becomes law. In each house, a bill must survive three stages:
- Committee consideration — New bills are sent to standing committees by subject matter. Since there are so many proposed bills, most bills today are sent directly to subcommittee. During hearings, experts, government officials, or lobbyists present their points of view to committee members. After the hearings, the bill is revised until the committee is ready to send it to the floor.
- Floor debate — In the House only, a bill goes from committee to a special Rules Committee that sets time limits on debate and makes rules for adding amendments. If time limits are short and no amendments are allowed from the floor, the rules committee has imposed a "gag rule." Rules for debate on the Senate floor are much looser. Senators are allowed to talk as much about each bill as they like. No restrictions on amendments are allowed in the Senate. This lack of rules has led to an occasional filibuster in which a senator literally talks a bill to death. Filibusters are prohibited in the House. Both houses require a majority of its members to be present for a vote. Passage of a bill generally requires a majority vote by the members present.
- Conference committees — Most bills that pass the first two stages do not need to go to conference committee, but those that are controversial, particularly important, or complex often do. A conference committee is formed to merge two versions of a bill — one from the House and one from the Senate — when the two houses cannot readily agree on changes. The members are chosen from the standing committees that sponsored the bill who come up with a compromise. The revised bill then must go back to the floors of each house and be passed by both houses before it can be sent to the President for signing.
Although the process is long and difficult, the founders intentionally set it up that way. The process ensures that bills that survive are well considered and deliberate.
Source: How a Bill Becomes a Law (2)
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