Congress’s primary duty is to pass laws. The legislative process is often slow, just as the framers of the Constitution intended. The framers believed that a slow-moving legislature would be less able to infringe on citizens’ rights and liberties.
Most bills that Congress considers are public bills, meaning that they affect the public as a whole. A private bill grants some relief or benefit to a single person, named in the bill. Many private bills help foreign nationals obtain visas, but they can cover a variety of other matters.
The process through which a bill becomes law occurs in several stages in both houses:
Sometimes the president chooses to do nothing with bills that Congress sends. If the president still has not signed or vetoed the bill after ten days, the bill becomes law if Congress is in session. If Congress has since adjourned, the bill does not become law. This is called a pocket veto.
Congress must also pass the federal budget. According to the Constitution, Congress must approve all government spending. In other words, Congress has the power of the purse. Many congressional activities are related to spending and generating revenue. The U.S. government runs on a fiscal year, a twelve-month period used for accounting purposes. Currently, the fiscal years starts on the first day of October, but Congress has the power to change the start date. Congress must pass a budget for every fiscal year.
Because the budget is so complex, the president and Congress begin work on it as much as eighteen months before the start of a fiscal year. The president submits a budget proposal to Congress every January for the upcoming fiscal year. Congress then acts on the proposal, usually granting much of what the president wants. To prevent a government shutdown, Congress must pass the budget by the end of the fiscal year.
Spending money is a two-step process:
Congress usually ends up creating an appropriation bill for each government department, although sometimes departments are combined into a single bill. Each bill must be passed for that department to receive funding. Some appropriation bills are easily passed, but others are very controversial.
Congress must pass a budget every year by the start of the new fiscal year, which means that appropriation bills must be passed for every part of the government. If an appropriation bill does not pass, then the department whose budget is being discussed will shut down, and all nonessential employees will be temporarily out of work. Sometimes Congress passes a continuing resolution, which provides funding for a limited period (usually a week or two). Congress then uses the extra time to reach an agreement on the budget.