Every year, thousands of bills are introduced to Congress. Despite the impact these bills can have, many Americans don’t understand how the legislative process works.
These five facts about the US legislative system will help you to understand how the government actually works.
Table of Contents
1. The Legislative Branch Has Two Houses
The legislature in the United States consists of two distinct houses. First, you have the House of Representatives; second, you have the Senate. The reason for this split is the Great Compromise of 1787, which attempted to resolve issues of representation for states with large populations vs. states with smaller ones.
The House of Representatives is the lower chamber of the US Congress. Members are elected every two years.
The number of representatives that each state has is determined by its population levels. With that said, each state is guaranteed to have at least one representative regardless of population size.
The Senate is the upper chamber of Congress. Members are elected every six years.
Each state has two senators, and this number will never change based on state population. This means there are currently 100 senators.
This setup is intended to ensure everyone gets fair representation and that no state or group of states can take over the legislative process.
2. The Lawmaking Process
The process of drafting new laws begins when a member of Congress introduces a bill. A bill is a law that’s proposed either by someone in the House of Representatives or by the Senate. Once someone from either of these two introduces a bill, it goes to a committee for consideration.
These committees are comprised of experts on specific subjects. This enables them to review the bill and identify any potential problems or other issues.
At this stage, it’s possible that the committee will reject the bill, and it will go no further. On the other hand, if the committee decides to approve the bill, the law will go on to the next process.
Approved bills advance to the full chamber, where members of Congress will debate and vote on whether to adopt the bill. Once a bill is passed by both the House and the Senate, the bill goes to the President.
The President can choose to sign the bill into law or to veto it. If the President chooses not to sign or veto the bill within three days, the bill will become law automatically.
While citizens do not get the chance to vote on these bills, they can influence the vote in several ways. For example, they might elect representatives to Congress who will vote according to their interests. They may also try to influence those who vote on the bill through direct lobbying.
3. The Filibuster
The filibuster is a legislative tactic that lawmakers can use to delay or prevent drafting new laws. This is not an official tactic or law, but rather, it is an unofficial tradition. It works by senators delaying the voting of a bill by speaking about the subject for an extended length of time.
The Senate rules say that any senator can talk about a bill for as long as they want unless three-fifths of the Senate vote to end the debate and move on from the matter.
This means that senators often can use the filibuster to delay and prevent a bill from being voted on indefinitely. The filibuster is quite a controversial technique that has been used by both Democrats and Republicans. Some people think that it is subversive to democracy and should not be allowed.
Advocates of the technique, on the other hand, suggest that it is an important safeguard against government tyranny. While there has been considerable debate about reforming or removing the filibuster, it seems unlikely that anything will change in the near future.
4. Conference Committees
Conference committees are a vital part of the US legislature because they help to resolve differences between the Senate and the House. If the House and the Senate pass different versions of a bill, the conference committee will meet to discuss the differences.
Generally, these committees are made up of a combination of people from the Senate and the House. The group will attempt to work out a good compromise that both the House and the Senate will accept. This may involve making significant changes to the bill or it might involve negotiating new provisions.
Once the new version of the bill is completed, the House and the Senate will vote on it. If the bill passes, it goes to the President’s desk for either veto or approval.
5. The Presidential Veto
While the President is a powerful figure, they do not have the ability to make new laws without working with Congress. With that said, they do have the power to veto any bill that Congress attempts to pass into law.
When Congress passes a bill, the President has ten days to either sign, veto, or ignore the bill. If the President chooses to ignore a bill, it will become law. If the President vetoes the bill, it goes back to Congress with an explanation as to why the President used their veto powers.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the bill can’t be overridden. In response to the veto, Congress can still force the bill into law if at least two-thirds of the chamber votes to override the veto. Generally speaking, this isn’t a very common problem as the President rarely uses their veto power.
With that said, the threat of the presidential veto can often have a lot of influence in Congress. For example, it might make Congress more likely to modify the contents of a bill.
Now You Know More About the Legislative Process
So now you know more about the legislative branch and the legislative process. Being informed on how the government works is the first step towards getting involved and making positive changes through the legislature.
If you’re interested in learning about some other topics relating to the legal system, check out the rest of our blog posts.
Last Updated on February 26, 2023