The Legislative Process
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.
Bills and Laws
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:
- Introduction: Only a member of Congress may introduce a bill. After a bill is introduced, it is assigned a designation number. Only members of the House of Representatives may introduce bills concerning taxes.
- Referral to committee: The leader of the house in which the bill was introduced then refers the bill to an appropriate committee or committees.
- Committee action: The committees can refer the bill to subcommittees for action, hearings, markup sessions, and votes. The committee can also kill the bill by doing nothing at all, a process known as pigeonholing.
- Referral to the full body: If a committee approves a bill, the bill is sent on to the full House or Senate.
Floor debate and vote: The full body debates the bill and
then votes. The two houses differ significantly in how they handle debate:
- In the House, the Rules Committee has the power to limit debate and the number of amendments offered during debate. A vote in which every member’s vote is recorded is called a roll-call vote.
- In the Senate, members are allowed to speak as much as they wish and to propose as many amendments as they wish. There is no Senate Rules Committee.
- Conference committee: Often, the two houses produce different versions of a single bill. When this happens, both houses appoint members to a conference committee, which works to combine the versions. After the conference committee’s report, both houses must vote on the new bill.
- The President: The president’s only official legislative duty is to sign or veto bills passed by Congress. If the president signs the bill, it becomes law. If the bill is vetoed, it goes back to Congress, which can override the veto with a two-thirds vote in both houses. Veto overrides are rare—it is extremely difficult to get two-thirds of each house of Congress to agree to override. Instead, presidential vetoes usually kill bills.
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.
Authorization and Appropriation
Spending money is a two-step process:
- Congress must authorize the money being spent. Authorization is a declaration by a committee that a specific amount of money will be made available to an agency or department.
- After authorizing expenditures, Congress must appropriate the money by declaring how much of the authorized money an agency or department will spend. Sometimes appropriation bills come with strict guidelines for spending the money.
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.