The Legislative Function of Congress

How a Bill Becomes Law

A bill is introduced by a member of the legislature, read through, debated, and then passed to become a law.

Learning Objectives

Explain the process by which a bill becomes a law through the legislative and executive branches of government

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the US system, where the executive is formally separated from the legislature, all bills must originate from the legislature.
  • In the U.S. Congress, a system of committees considers law relating to each policy area jurisdictions. The committee system is a way to provide for specialization, or a division of the legislative labor.
  • At the second reading the general merits of the bill are considered. The committee reports to the legislature and further amendments are proposed. A third reading debate occurs and the bill is submitted.
  • Bills passed by the legislature usually require the approval of the executive to become law. The legislature often has the power to override the veto of the executive by means of a supermajority. Any branch at anytime may decline the proposed bill.

Key Terms

  • fiat: An authoritative command or order to do something; an effectual decree.

How a Bill Becomes Law

A bill is introduced by a member of the legislature. While mechanisms exist to allow other members of the legislature to introduce bills, these are subject to strict timetables and usually fail unless a consensus is reached. In the U.S. system, where the executive is formally separated from the legislature, all bills must originate from the legislature.

Bills can be introduced through leave and government motion. Leave is when a motion is brought before the house asking that leave be given to bring in a bill. The legislator has 10 minutes to propose a bill, which can then be considered by the House on a day appointed for the purpose. While this rule still exists in the rules of procedure of the U.S. Congress, it is seldom used. A government motion occurs in jurisdictions where the executive can control legislative business a bill may be brought in by executive fiat.

A system of committees considers law relating to each policy area jurisdictions in the U.S. Congress. Thousands of bills are introduced in every session of Congress and no single member can possibly be adequately informed on all the issues that arise. The committee system is a way to provide for specialization, or a division of the legislative labor. Committees usually have the final say on pieces of legislation and only very rarely are deprived of control of a bill; although this kind of action is allowed in the rules of each chamber.

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Capitol Hill: The U.S. has a bicameral legislature in Congress, consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate

House and Senate Committees

A congressional committee is a legislative sub-organization in the United States Congress that handles a specific duty. Committee membership enables members to develop specialized knowledge of the matters under their jurisdiction. Congress divides its legislative, oversight, and internal administrative tasks among approximately 200 committees and subcommittees.

There are three main types of committees—standing, select or special, and joint. In the House of Representatives, there are 21 permanent committees, and 20 in the United States Senate. Four joint committees operate with members from both houses on matters of mutual jurisdiction and oversight. Committees in the House of Representatives generally have more members, due its larger size, as compared to the smaller 100-member Senate. Senate rules fix the maximum size for many of its committees, while the House determines the size and makeup of each committee every new Congress.

Bills are generally considered through a number of readings. This refers to the historic practice of the clerical officers of the legislature reading the contents of a bill to the legislature. While the bill is no longer read, the motions on the bill still refer to this practice.

At the second reading the general merits of the bill are considered. After which, the bill is referred to a committee, considering the bill line by line proposing amendments. The committee reports to the legislature, at which stage further amendments are proposed. Finally a third reading debate at which the bill as amended is considered in its entirety. The process is repeated in the other house, before the Bill is submitted to the executive for approval.

Bills passed by the legislature usually require the approval of the executive to become law. The need to receive approval can be used as a political tool by the executive and its refusal is known as a veto. The legislature often has the power to override the veto of the executive by means of a supermajority. Any branch at anytime may decline the proposed bill.

Committee Deliberation

Deliberation is a process of thoughtfully weighing options, usually prior to voting, emphasizing the use of logic and reason.

Learning Objectives

Identify the significance of committee deliberation in the legislative process

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In deliberative democracy the aim is for both elected officials and the general public to use deliberation rather than power-struggle as the basis for their vote and is a form of democracy in which deliberation is central to decision making.
  • Deliberative democracy differs from traditional democratic theory in that authentic deliberation, not mere voting, is the primary source of legitimacy for the lawmaking processes.
  • A deliberative assembly is an organization comprising members who use parliamentary procedure to make decisions. A committee is a small deliberative assembly subordinate to a larger deliberative assembly.

Key Terms

  • subordinate: Placed in a lower class, rank, or position.

Deliberation and Democracy

Deliberation is a process of thoughtfully weighing options, usually prior to voting. Deliberation emphasizes the use of logic and reason as opposed to power-struggle, creativity, or dialogue. Group decisions are generally made after deliberation through a vote of those involved.

In deliberative democracy the aim is for both elected officials and the general public to use deliberation rather than power-struggle as the basis for their vote. Deliberative democracy is a form of democracy in which deliberation is central to decision making. It adopts elements of both consensus decision-making and majority rule. Deliberative democracy differs from traditional democratic theory in that authentic deliberation, not mere voting, is the primary source of legitimacy for the lawmaking processes.

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Capitol Hill: Capitol Hill, where bills become laws.

Debate in the U.S. Congress

Each bill goes through several stages in each house including consideration by a committee and advice from the Government Accountability Office. Most legislation is considered by standing committees which have jurisdiction over a particular subject such as Agriculture or Appropriations. The House has twenty standing committees; the Senate has sixteen. Standing committees meet at least once each month. Almost all standing committee meetings for transacting business must be open to the public unless the committee votes, publicly, to close the meeting. A committee might call for public hearings on important bills. Each committee is led by a chair who belongs to the majority party and a ranking member of the minority party. Witnesses and experts can present their case for or against a bill. Then, a bill may go to what’s called a mark-up session where committee members debate the bill’s merits and may offer amendments or revisions. Committees may also amend the bill, but the full house holds the power to accept or reject committee amendments. After debate, the committee votes whether it wishes to report the measure to the full house. If a bill is tabled then it is rejected. If amendments are extensive, sometimes a new bill with amendments built in will be submitted as a so-called clean bill with a new number. Both houses have procedures under which committees can be bypassed or overruled but they are rarely used. Generally, members who have been in Congress longer have greater seniority and therefore greater power.

A bill which reaches the floor of the full house can be simple or complex and begins with an enacting formula such as “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled. ” Consideration of a bill requires, itself, a rule which is a simple resolution specifying the particulars of debate—time limits, possibility of further amendments, and such. Each side has equal time and members can yield to other members who wish to speak. Sometimes opponents seek to recommit a bill which means to change part of it. Generally, discussion requires a quorum, usually half of the total number of representatives, before discussion can begin, although there are exceptions. The house may debate and amend the bill; the precise procedures used by the House and Senate differ. A final vote on the bill follows.

Once a bill is approved by one house, it is sent to the other which may pass, reject, or amend it. For the bill to become law, both houses must agree to identical versions of the bill. If the second house amends the bill, then the differences between the two versions must be reconciled in a conference committee, an ad hoc committee that includes both senators and representatives sometimes by using a reconciliation process to limit budget bills. Both Houses use a budget enforcement mechanism informally known as pay-as-you-go or paygo which discourages members from considering acts which increase budget deficits. If both houses agree to the version reported by the conference committee, the bill passes, otherwise it fails. In this respect, this is how bills “die” in committees.

The Constitution specifies that a majority of members known as a quorum be present before doing business in each house. However, the rules of each house assume that a quorum is present unless a quorum call demonstrates the contrary. Since representatives and senators who are present rarely demand quorum calls, debate often continues despite the lack of a majority.

Debate

Debate is contention in argument and a method of interactive representational argument, and often occurs in Congress.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the role that debate plays in the United States Congress

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Debate is a broader form of argument than deductive reasoning, which only examines whether a conclusion is a consequence of premises, and factual argument, which only examines what is or isn’t the case, or rhetoric, which is a technique of persuasion.
  • Though logical consistency, factual accuracy and emotional appeal to the audience are important elements of the art of persuasion, in debating, one side often prevails over the other side by presenting a superior context and framework of the issue, which is far more subtle and strategic.
  • Debating is commonly carried out in many assemblies of various types to discuss matters and to make resolutions about action to be taken, often by a vote.

Key Terms

  • filibuster: A delaying tactic, especially the use of long, often irrelevant speeches given in order to delay progress or the making of a decision, especially on the floor of the US Senate.
  • rhetoric: The art of using language, especially public speaking, as a means to persuade.

Debate is contention in argument, dispute, controversy, and discussion. It is a method of interactive and representational argument. Debate is a broader form of argument than deductive reasoning, which only examines whether a conclusion is a consequence of premises, and factual argument, which only examines what is or isn’t the case, or rhetoric, which is a technique of persuasion. Debates are often organized for purely competitive purposes.

The use of debate in Congress often occurs when a new bill is introduced, especially if that bill is controversial. Senators may debate a bill. In the Senate, Senators sometimes use this rule to filibuster a bill—that is, continue debating a bill endlessly so that it cannot be voted on. The only way to end a filibuster is for three-fifths of all Senators to vote for a cloture resolution, which ends all debate and brings the bill up for voting. Use of the filibuster tends to be controversial. Whichever party is in the majority tends to call its use “obstructionism,” while the other side sees it as an important check on the majority.

Because of its size, the House relies heavily upon fixed rules and strict timetables for debate. When bills are debated on the floor of the House, each party’s leader is allocated a fixed amount of time to present their argument for or against the bill, and they can delegate this time to members of their party as they see fit. During House debates, it is common for representatives to “yield their time” to one another. Times for debate and other procedures are set by the House Rules Committee, which is generally considered to be one of the most powerful committees in Congress.

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Congressional Records: The Congressional Records contain sections of verbatum congressional debates.

Conference Committee

A conference committee is a committee of Congress appointed by the House and Senate to resolve disagreements on a particular bill.

Learning Objectives

Explain the function of the conference committee in the legislative process

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The conference committee is usually composed of the senior Members of the standing committees of each House that originally considered the legislation.
  • Conference committees exist to draft a compromise bill that both houses can accept. Both houses of Congress must eventually pass the identical legislation for the bill to become law.
  • Each house determines the number of conferees from its house. The number of conferees need not be equal from each side. In order to conclude its business, a majority of both House and Senate delegations to the conference must indicate their approval by signing the conference report.
  • The authority to appoint conferees lies in the entire House, and the entire Senate can appoint conferees by adopting a debatable motion to do so, but leadership has increasingly exercised authority in the appointment of conferees.
  • The conference committee produces a conference report melding the work of the House and Senate into a final version of the bill and the conference report also includes a joint explanatory statement of the conference committee.

Key Terms

  • chair: Chairperson.
  • joint committee: a Congressional committee consisting of Members of both Houses and having jurisdiction over matters of joint interest
  • conference committee: a joint committee of a bicameral legislature, which is appointed by, and consists of, members of both chambers to resolve disagreements on a particular bill
  • standing committee: a committee established by an official and providing for its scope and power

A conference committee is a committee of Congress appointed by the House of Representatives and Senate to resolve disagreements on a particular bill. The conference committee is usually composed of the senior members of the standing committees of each house that originally considered the legislation.

Conference committees operate after the House and the Senate have passed different versions of a bill. Conference committees exist to draft a compromise bill that both houses can accept. Both houses of Congress must eventually pass the identical legislation for the bill to become law. The two houses can reach that identical product through the process of amendments between Houses, where the House passes the Senate bill with a House amendment, or vice versa. Thus most major bills become law through using a conference committee.

After one house passes a bill, the second house will often pass the same bill, with an amendment representing the second house’s work product. The second house will then send a message to the first house, asking the first house to concur with the second house’s amendment. If the first house does not like the second house’s amendment, then the first house can disagree with the amendment of the second house, request a conference, appoint conferees, and send a message to that effect to the second house. The second house then insists on its amendment, agrees to a conference, and appoints conferees.

Each house determines the number of conferees from its house. The number of conferees need not be equal from each side. In order to conclude its business, a majority of both House and Senate delegations to the conference must indicate their approval by signing the conference report.

The authority to appoint conferees lies in the entire House, and the entire Senate can appoint conferees by adopting a debatable motion to do so. But leadership have increasingly exercised authority in the appointment of conferees. The House and Senate may instruct conferees, but these instructions are not binding on conferees.

Conference committees can be extremely contentious, particularly if the houses are controlled by different parties. House rules require that one conference meeting be open to the public, unless the house, in open session, votes that a meeting will be closed to the public. But apart from this one open meeting, conference committees usually meet in private and are dominated by the Chairs of the House and Senate Committees.

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John Boehner: Speaker of the House John Boehner (R), seen here with President Barack Obama during the 2011 State of the Union, called for a conference committee to discuss new tax policies that were introduced to the house in 2011. Critics say he used the conference committees to stall the passing of any tax compromises.

House and Senate rules forbid Conferees from inserting into their report matter not committed to them by either house, but conference committees sometimes do introduce new matter. In such a case, the rules of each house provide that a Member may object through a point of order, although each house has procedures under which it can vote to waive the point of order. The house provides a procedure by which the offending provision may be stricken from the bill. Formerly, the Senate required a Senator to object to the whole bill as reported by the conference committee. If the objection was well founded, the Presiding Officer ruled and a Senator could appeal the ruling of the Chair. If the appeal was sustained by a majority of the Senate, it had precedential effect, eroding the rule on the scope of conference committees.

The conference committee produces a conference report melding the work of the House and Senate into a final version of the bill. A conference report proposes legislative language as an amendment to the bill and also includes a joint explanatory statement of the conference committee. This explanatory statement provides one of the best sources of legislative history on the bill.

Once a bill has been passed by a conference committee, it goes directly to the floor of both houses for a vote, and is not open to further amendment. In the first house to consider the conference, a Member may move to recommit the bill to the conference committee. But once the first house has passed the conference report, the conference committee is dissolved and the second house to act can no longer recommit the bill to conference.

Presidential Action

The Ineligibility Clause prevents the President from being a member of Congress and cannot directly introduce legislative proposals.

Learning Objectives

Identify the role of the President in drafting and passing bills into federal law

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The President can take an indirect role in shaping legislation, especially if the president’s political party has a majority in Congress.
  • According to Article II, Section 3, Clause 2 of the Constitution, the president may convene either or both houses of Congress.
  • The President cannot directly introduce legislative proposals for consideration in Congress.

Key Terms

  • adjourn: Temporarily ending an event with intentions to complete it at another time or place.

The President of the United States has limited legislative powers. The Constitution’s Ineligibility Clause prevents the President from simultaneously being a member of Congress. Therefore, the president cannot directly introduce legislative proposals for consideration in Congress. However, the president can take an indirect role in shaping legislation, especially if the president’s political party has a majority in one or both houses of Congress.

For example, the president or other officials of the executive branch may draft legislation and then ask senators or representatives to introduce these drafts into Congress. The president can further influence the legislative branch through constitutionally mandated, periodic reports to Congress. These reports may be either written or oral, but today are given as the State of the Union address, which often outlines the president’s legislative proposals for the coming year.

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American Bar Association: Union Trust Building, Washington D.C.Home to the American Bar Association’s Branch office

In the 20th century critics began charging that too many legislative and budgetary powers have slid into the hands of presidents that should belong to Congress. As the head of the executive branch, presidents control a vast array of agencies that can issue regulations with little oversight from Congress. One critic charged that presidents could appoint a virtual army of ‘czars’ each wholly unaccountable to Congress yet tasked with spearheading major policy efforts for the White House. Presidents have been criticized for making singing statements when signing congressional legislation about how they understand a bill or plan to execute it. This practice has been criticized by the American Bar Association (ABA, ) as unconstitutional. Conservative commentator George Will wrote of an increasingly swollen executive branch and the eclipse of Congress.

According to Article II, Section 3, Clause 2 of the Constitution, the president may convene either or both houses of Congress. If both houses cannot agree on a date of adjournment, the president may appoint a date for Congress to adjourn.