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'Til Death Do Us Part: How A Bill Becomes A Law
By Jessica Harkins
Can I be honest with you? I’ve learned pretty much everything I know about politics and Capitol Hill from watching The West Wing, VEEP, and House of Cards. Sorry, Dad. By now, most of us, at least my fellow interns at IJM, have binge-watched our way through season 4 of House of Cards. We’ve watched Frank Underwood whip the votes with fear and terror for four horrifying seasons, and we’ve thanked God we’re not under President Underwood’s jurisdiction.
But have you ever wondered how a bill actually becomes a law in the U S of A? Let’s get real about the process with the help of a little marriage metaphor.
—Thomas Jefferson Memorial
Introduction / Proposal
This is the first step of a bill becoming a law. Similar to that moment when you realize you have something really good with someone else and you decide to make it a forever type of deal, so you propose. This is when a bill is introduced in the House or Senate. Fun fact? In the House of Representatives, a bill is formally introduced by being placed in, I kid you not, the “hopper”—a special box on the side of the clerk’s desk.
Real life example: Senator Bob Corker introduced the End Modern Slavery Initiative Act (S.553) on February 24th, 2015, and we’re still talking about it. Yes, it takes longer to pass a bill than it takes to write up 140 characters and push Tweet #nofilter.
Committee / Confer with the BFFs and Family
Now that the bill has been introduced, it gets referred to a relevant committee, and the committee in turn assigns it to a subcommittee. The subcommittee reviews and makes any changes before the full committee’s vote on the bill. This is the part where you’re thinking about saying yes or no to that proposal—and all the people who know you best are “helping” you make the decision. Everyone weighs in. If the bill is passed out of committee, save the date, because the bill is now ready for debate!
Real life example: The End Modern Slavery Initiative (EMSI for short) Act passed unanimously out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Debated and Voted / Say "Yes!"—and Hear About it From Everyone Else
Once a bill has been passed out of committee, it’s time for the full House/Senate to debate and then vote on the bill. There is a lot of back and forth—hence all of the gray hair and balding men. This is similar to that golden time where, having said “yes!” and gotten engaged to your special someone, everyone (people you know and people you’ve never met) is telling you what they think and how good—or bad?—a decision they think you’ve made.
Real life example: this is the next step for the EMSI! We’re hoping to see it pass this year.
Conference / Prenup and Prep
If the bill has passed in one chamber but not the other, the process would start all over again in the other chamber. Once the bill has passed in both the House and Senate, the two versions could look a little different. So this is the phase where a committee of representatives and senators is assembled to merge the House and Senate bills into one final “conferenced” bill. Saying yes was the easy part—this is where you get to work out all of the business of actually getting married. Think prenuptial agreement, saying “yes” to the dress, and all of the other wedding planning details from here to Toledo #ThisIsHappening.
Vote / Say, “I Do!”
After the ink has dried on the final “conferenced bill,” it goes back to the House and Senate for final approval. The big day has finally arrived, and the bill is headed for the White House—and you’re headed for wedded bliss.
Pass / It’s Official!
Before you can smash cake into your new groom’s face, you need to get that marriage certificate signed. Similarly, the final step in the bill becoming law is now in the hands of the president. The president has three choices when the new bill (like the End Modern Slavery Initiative Act) reaches the oval office:
- Sign it into law! Or, if it’s not signed within 10 days, and Congress in session, it still becomes a law.
- Veto the bill and send it back to Congress, in which case Congress has an opportunity to override the veto.
- Pocket veto—in other words, do nothing. If Congress is in session, the bill becomes law after 10 days. If Congress is not in session, the bill dies.
But let’s think happy thoughts, and stick with option one, since after all, this is a blog post about how a bill becomes a law.
‘Til death do us part? The vows have been said and the marriage certificate signed: the bill is now law forever and ever, because it has passed in both the House AND the Senate AND has been approved by the President.
... And if you still don’t understand the process of a bill becoming a law, I give you schoolhouse rock ladies and gentlemen: “I’m Just a Bill.”