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Federal Legislative History: Basics

How a Bill Becomes a Law

The "How Our Laws Are Made" image was created by Mike Wirth and Dr. Suzanne Cooper Guasco and is licensed for use under the Creative Commons Atrribution 3.0 United States License.

The Life of a Bill - First Chamber Action

Legislative research is easier if you understand how a bill becomes law.
  1. The bill introduced and referred to committee - BILL AS INTRODUCED
  2. Committee hearings are held; staff draft research aids for committee  - COMMITTEE HEARING, PRINT
  3. Committee mark-up session; bill analyzed and amended
  4. Committee report drafted and filed - REPORTED BILL, COMMITTEE REPORT
  5. The bill referred to full chamber; terms of floor consideration approved
  6. The bill is scheduled for full chamber action (floor debate, amendments, votes)
  7. The bill is debated and amended - DEBATE, VOTES ON AMENDMENTS
  8. Final passage - VOTE
  9. The bill is transmitted to other chamber - ENGROSSED BILL

The Life of a Bill - Second Chamber Action

10.  Similar committee and chamber consideration (see steps 1-7)
11.  The bill is approved as received (to step 17) - DEBATE, VOTE, ENGROSSED BILL or
      Bill approved with amendments - DEBATE, VOTE or 
      Chamber substitutes its own bill - DEBATE, VOTE
12.  The bill is returned to body of origin - ENGROSSED BILL

The Life of a Bill - Bicameral Action

13. First chamber agrees to amendments (to step 17) - DEBATE, VOTE, ENGROSSED BILL  or
      First chamber amends amendments and returns bill to second chamber - DEBATE, VOTE,
      ENGROSSED BILL  or      
      First chamber disagrees with amendments and requests a conference - DEBATE, VOTE
14. Conference negotiations are held and compromise agreement reached
15. Conference report drafted and filed - CONFERENCE BILL, CONFERENCE REPORT
16. Conference report debated and approved by each chamber - DEBATE, VOTE
17. Final bill passed by both chambers delivered to the President within 2-year Congress -

The Life of a Bill - Subsequent Action

18. President signs or vetoes bill - SIGNING STATEMENT and PUBLIC LAW, VETO STATEMENT
19. If veto, Congress overrides (with 2/3 vote) or sustains veto - DEBATES, VOTES
20. If veto overridden, vetoed bill enacted - PUBLIC LAW
21. If President ignores bill (neither signs nor vetoes) for 10 weekdays, bill enacted - PUBLIC
      LAW but
22. If President ignores bill for 10 weekdays after adjournment at end of a 2-year Congress, bill
      dies (pocket veto)
Adapted from: Jerrold Zwirn, Congressional Publications and Proceedings: Research on Legislation, Budgets, and Treaties, 2d ed., 1988.

Congressional Basics

A Congress, composed of the same elected members, meets in a two-year period, until the next congressional election.

Each of these periods is called a "Congress."  A two-year Congress is divided into two one-year sessions.

For example, the 111th Congress began in January 2009 and adjourned in December 2010.  The First Session was in 2009; the Second Session was in 2010.

When a bill dies in Congress

The legislative process for an issue may continue over several Congresses.

A bill that is not enacted in a two-year Congress dies when that Congress adjourns.  It may be reintroduced in the next Congress with a new bill number.

A researcher may need to track multiple related bills over several Congresses.  Documents produced in earlier Congresses may be relevant to later bills on the same topic.

How a bill becomes a public law

A bill becomes a public law when:

   •  It passes the House and Senate in identical form and

   •  It is signed by the President or

      The President does nothing for 10 weekdays:

         •  Unless he does nothing after Congress adjourns (pocket veto) or

      A presidential veto is overridden by a 2/3 vote of Congress.

After a bill becomes a public law

A public law is published in Statutes at Large and codified in the U.S. Code.

A public law has parallel citations: Pub. Law. 107-147, 116 Stat. 21.   

Section numbering in the U.S. Code is different than in the public law.

How the Executive Branch implements a new law

Executive Branch agencies promulgate regulations to implement the new law.

They promulgate proposed and final regulations to tell citizens what they must do to comply with the new law.

Proposed and final regulations are published in the Federal Register.

Final regulations are codified in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

Legislative Tutorials


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