Under our Constitution, Congress enjoys the central lawmaking role within the federal government, including matters which pertain to the postal system. The lawmaking process is governed by rules, precedents, and customs; knowing how the system works can make you more effective and successful when raising your interests and concerns on Capitol Hill.
The following material explains how laws are created, and the opportunities you have to influence legislation through letters, testimony, and communication with Senators and Representatives.
The first article of the U.S. Constitution describes the legislative branch of the government, and delineates both its
expressed and implied powers. Subsequent articles set out the powers of the executive and the judiciary branches.
These three branches, whose powers and authorities are delicately counter-balanced within our constitutional
framework, serve as the basis for government in America.
Normally, the three federal branches and the states work together harmoniously. When conflicts arise, they generally are settled by negotiation, bargaining, and compromise. When these measures fail, as they do occasionally, disputes ultimately are settled by the United States Supreme Court.
The United States Congress is a "bicameral" legislature (i.e., composed of two chambers) consisting of the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives. The Senate is made up of 100 members, two of whom are elected from each state to represent that state for six-year terms. One-third of Senators come up for re-election every two years. This requirement preserves continuity in the Senate's deliberations by assuring that two-thirds of its members are experienced in its workings and legislative matters at hand at all times.
The House of Representatives consists of 435 members (a number that is fixed by constitutional amendment). Each state's share of the 435 seats in the U.S. House is proportionate to its total population. While each state is guaranteed at least one Representative regardless of its total population, the size of its actual delegation is decided on the basis of the national census -- the last of which took place in 1990. On this basis, states that gain population gain seats, and states that lose population lose seats by mandatory reapportionment. Representatives serve their districts for two-year terms, and all 435 Representatives are required to stand for reelection, if they so choose, every two years.
TERMS AND SESSIONS. The two-year period for which members of the House of Representatives are elected constitutes a Congress. Under the Constitution, this period begins at noon on January 3 of an odd-numbered year, following the election of representatives the previous November, and ends at noon on January 3 of the next odd-numbered year. Congresses are numbered consecutively, and the Congress that convened in January 2001 is the 107th in a series that began in 1789.
Under the Constitution, Congress is required to "assemble" at least once each year. Consequently, every Congress has two regular sessions, beginning in January of successive years and continuing until the Congress adjourns sine die (i.e., "without a day"). Adjournment of the second session is generally the final action of a Congress. Members, however, frequently authorize their leaders to call them back if a national emergency arises. The President may "on extraordinary occasions" convene one or both houses in special session.
HOW A BILL BECOMES LAW
In a nutshell, this is how a piece of legislation becomes law. A member of Congress introduces a bill. It is referred to a committee and, in turn, to a subcommittee. The subcommittee holds hearings on the bill and then amends and sends it back to the full committee. The full committee may make further changes, but ultimately it issues a committee report on the bill and sends it to the floor of the Senate or House where it originally was introduced. Once the bill reaches the floor, it is debated and perhaps amended further before a final vote is called. If it passes, it then is sent to the other chamber where an essentially identical process begins anew.
Often both chambers work simultaneously on identical or similar bills. Once each chamber has passed its version, any differences between the two draft bills are hammered out in a conference committee. The conference committee seeks to arrive at language acceptable to both chambers, but the kinds of changes it can make are subject to certain restrictions. Once a conference committee agrees on exact bill language, the conference measure is sent back to each chamber. If both chambers approve, the legislation is sent to the President for approval and signing. Or the President could choose to exercise his right to veto.
Should the President veto the legislation, Congress has the option of overriding the veto. If such an effort is successful,
the bill becomes law over the President's objections. If a veto override attempt is unsuccessful, the measure is dead.
The "Dance" Of Legislation. In actuality, lawmaking is considerably more complex and bound by traditions, rules, and procedures. Both chambers have adopted procedures to expedite consideration of minor and noncontroversial legislation. But for controversial measures, lawmaking is complicated and time-consuming. At each step of the way the bill's proponents must put together a majority coalition to move the measure to the next step. That calls for continual bargaining and compromise to build winning support for the measure.
The rules and procedures of the House and Senate differ significantly. The sheer size of the House requires rules that force it to operate in a more orderly, predictable, and controlled fashion than the Senate. Thus the House is more hierarchically organized and has more rules, which it follows more closely.
By comparison, the Senate's smaller size allows it to be more personal and informal. Although the Senate has rules and procedures, it operates more often by unanimous consent. Every senator is accorded a deference rarely seen in the House. The privileges of engaging in unlimited debate--the filibuster -- and offering unrelated amendments are cherished Senate traditions not permitted under House rules.
These rules and procedures govern how each bill passes through the many decision-points in Congress en route to enactment or defeat. At any of these points, the coalitions of interest in the Congress that support or oppose the bill (or some of its elements) can combine, dissolve, and recombine. To get a law enacted, the views of the executive branch, constituents, and special interest groups also must be taken into account. At any point, a bill is subject to delay, defeat, or substantial modification.
THE LEGISLATIVE PROCESS: A MORE DETAILED LOOK
The procedures for introducing legislation and seeing it through committee are similar in both the House and Senate. Legislative proposals originate in a number of different ways. The idea for legislation might arise from a Member of Congress, of course, special interest groups (business, labor, farm, civil rights, consumer, trade associations, etc.), and constituents.
Today much of the legislation considered by Congress originates in the executive branch(although key members of Congress may participate in the formulation of administration programs). Each year after the President outlines his legislative program, executive departments and agencies transmit to the House and Senate drafts of proposed legislation to carry out the President's program or ideas.
INTRODUCTION OF BILLS. No matter where a legislative proposal originates, it can be introduced only by a member of Congress. In the House, a member (including the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico and the nonvoting delegates of the District of Columbia, Guam, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands) may introduce any of several types of bills and resolutions by handing them to the clerk of the House or by placing them in a mahogany box near the clerk's desk called the hopper. The member need not seek recognition for the purpose. Senators introduce bills during the "morning hour."
There is no limit to the number of bills a member may introduce. House and Senate bills may have joint sponsorship and carry several members' names. The Constitution stipulates that "all bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives," and this generally has been interpreted to mean spending (appropriations) bills as well. All other bills may originate in either chamber.
Major legislation often is introduced in both houses in the form of companion (identical) bills, primarily to speed up the legislative process by encouraging both chambers to consider the measure simultaneously. Sponsors of companion bills also may hope to dramatize the importance or urgency of the issue and show broad support for the legislation.
TYPES OF LEGISLATION. Legislative proposals are commonly introduced in one of four forms, the most common of which is the "bill." Both chambers number their bills in order of their introduction in a congressional session. Senate bills are designated by an "S." and a number that designates the order in which the bill was introduced in that Congress -- e.g., S.l. House bills are designated "H.R.," and use a number that indicates its order in the introduction process -- e.g., H.R.6995.
Legislative proposals also take the form of joint, concurrent and simple resolutions. There is little difference between a "bill" and a "joint resolution," and joint resolutions may originate in either chamber. They are designated as either "S.J. Res." or "H.J. Res.," depending on the introducing chamber, and like bills, are assigned a sequential number.
Concurrent resolutions ("S. Con. Res.," or "H. Con. Res." and a sequential number) signify matters that concern both the Senate and the House. They generally express facts, principles, opinions, sentiments or purposes of the two chambers, and do not have the character of law. Concurrent resolutions are used to fix the time of adjournment of a Congress or to express the "sense of Congress" on an issue. Some concurrent resolutions, such as the annual congressional budget resolutions setting Congress's revenue and spending goals for the upcoming fiscal year, can have a substantial impact on all other legislation that Congress considers.
Simple resolutions ("S. Res.," or "H. Res., and a sequential number) signify matters that concern either one chamber or the other, and they are taken up only by that body and are not sent to the President. Like a concurrent resolution, a simple resolution does not have the force of law. Simple resolutions are used occasionally to express the opinion of a single house on a current issue. In the House, resolutions also embody the special orders or rules granted by the Rules Committee that set guidelines for floor debate on bills.
INTRODUCTION & REFERRAL TO COMMITTEE
Once a legislative proposal has been drafted in appropriate form, it is formally introduced in the appropriate chamber. On the Senate side, a senator asks the Senate's presiding officer for permission to introduce a bill, and does so, often with more or less extensive "floor remarks" on its nature and importance. On the House side, a Representative presents a bill to the Clerk of the House or places it in the "hopper" near the Speaker's platform. A representative may also make floor remarks.
Once a measure has been introduced, the presiding officer of the Senate or House assigns the bill a number. It then routinely is referred to that chamber's standing committee with authority over the bill's subject matter. The Speaker of the House and the presiding officer in the Senate are responsible for referring bills introduced in their respective chambers to the appropriate committees, but the job is usually left to the House and Senate parliamentarians.
The procedure of referring to a committee has arisen because both the number of members and the sheer volume and diversity of bills make it quite impossible for each Senator or Representative to scrutinize every bill. Consequently, each chamber has established a system of committees to give each bill the detailed review it requires. Committees, in turn, have established subcommittees for much the same reason.
Unless the chair of the full committee wishes the full committee to act on the bill, it is referred to one of its subcommittees for review. Bills that involve matters relevant to more than one committee's jurisdiction are referred jointly or successively to those committees.
About two weeks after introduction and referral, a limited number of copies of the new bill are available to the public in printed form. Copies may be obtained from the Senate or the House Documents Room, as appropriate, or by requesting them from your Senator or Representative.
Senators and Representatives who are interested in actively promoting their bills often seek co-sponsors--a means by which several members can jointly introduce and signal their strong support for the measure. Sponsorship by members of both political parties (bi-partisan sponsorship) is especially important because it signals a broader base of support for a given measure than partisan sponsorship. Endorsement by members of the committee(s) to which a given measure will be referred is also very important, because of the broad latitude given to committee members to influence the outcome of a bill by procedural and substantive means.
CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEES. Committees are the infrastructure of Congress. They are where the bulk of legislative work is done. Although the House and Senate handle bills in different ways when they reach the floor, the committee system in both chambers is similar.
Committees have enormous power. They hold hearings, conduct investigations, and oversee government programs. They initiate bills, approve and report legislation to the floor. They also can kill measures through inaction or defeat. The standing committees of Congress determine the fate of most legislative proposals. Committee members and staff frequently are experts in the subjects under their jurisdiction, and it is at the committee stage that a bill comes under the sharpest scrutiny. If a measure is going to be substantially revised, that revision usually occurs at the committee or subcommittee level.
Of all the committees in Congress, those with the most influence over the delineation of our nation's postal policy include: the House Subcommittee on the Postal Service, the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations, and the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. Those with a lesser degree of influence include: the House and Senate Committees on the Budget and the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight.
A committee may dispose of a bill in one of several ways: it may approve, or "report," the legislation with or without amendments; rewrite the bill entirely; reject (i.e., "kill") the bill; report it unfavorably or without recommendation to allow full House or Senate consideration; or refuse to consider the bill at all.
Committee membership is determined on the basis of majority and minority party ratios in each chamber, and is set at the beginning of each new Congress. In the House, the Democrats make their committee appointments through their Steering and Policy Committee and the Democratic Caucus, the Republicans through the Republican Conference. These assignments are then confirmed by floor vote. The most senior member of the majority often is designated as the committee chair. The most senior member of the minority party is usually designated as the "ranking minority member."
Subcommittees. Most standing committees have a number of subcommittees, which vary in importance from committee to committee. Some have well-defined jurisdictions and function with great autonomy. Much of their work -- both in the House and Senate -- is routinely endorsed by the full committee without further review.
Subcommittee membership also is determined in a manner that maintains the prevailing majority/minority party ratio in the full chamber. Senators may serve on three committees and on as many as eight subcommittees. Representatives, however, may serve on only two committees unless they are assigned to Rules, Appropriations, or Ways and Means. They may serve on only one of these key committees at a time.
Subcommittees and committees enjoy considerable independence and autonomy. The chair of a committee or subcommittee is a very important figure in the legislative process because he or she can determine which bills are taken up and the pace and sequence in which they are considered.
Committee Staffs. Over the years, Congress has found it necessary to hire professional staff to assist committees in their work. Committee staff are among the most influential people on Capitol Hill. They handle most of the researching, drafting, revising and defining of legislative content and strategy, in addition to controlling the flow and nature of information provided to committee members. The less informed staff are about the content and merits of a given legislative proposal, the less likely members will be fully informed on any issue.
HEARINGS. Few bills reach the House or Senate floor without first being the subject of hearings at the subcommittee level. Subcommittees usually invite testimony from government officials, who give their views on how the proposed measure would mesh with the President's program and policies, and from outside experts, scholars, citizens, and special interest groups. Most witnesses present prepared statements, after which they may be questioned by subcommittee members.
Hearings typically are held for a number of reasons. Most are designed as forums for public and professional feedback on a given legislative proposal, but they also serve as (1) a mechanism for informing members about current issues, (2) a way of testing the "climate" to determine whether or not to launch a specific legislative initiative, or (3) as a device to secure political goals. A properly fashioned hearing can permit all sides of a given issue to be aired, and provides members an opportunity to learn about an issue in a broad, general context. Many hearings are brief and perfunctory, and often only a few subcommittee members with a special interest in the subject are likely to participate.
Since committees and subcommittees serve review as well as legislative functions, the Senate and the House typically permit certain committees to exercise an oversight role--the purpose of which is to evaluate and assess the execution and the effectiveness with which laws are carried out by the Executive branch and to determine whether some form of remedial action is appropriate or desirable.
MARK-UP. Once hearings are concluded, a subcommittee will meet to "mark up" a bill by considering its contents on a line-by-line basis. The subcommittee may amend some provisions, discard others, or even rewrite the measure altogether. As a rule, a "straw vote" is taken among committee members on each proposed revision to ensure the mark-up has consensus support. When markup is finished, the subcommittee reports its version of the legislation, wether favorably or unfavorably, (if it has not killed the measure altogether) to the full committee.
Frequently, the full committee marks up the bill as it is received from the subcommittee. It has several options it also may take including tabling the bill, reporting it back to the subcommittee for further review, reporting the bill amended (appending to the bill any amendments adopted in mark-up), reporting a "clean bill" (a new version of a heavily revised, amended bill that is re-introduced, assigned a new number, and sent to the floor for consideration).
Most committees prepare "staff drafts" or "committee prints" that are the working drafts of a bill as it moves through the mark-up process. These "prints" are generally available on request.
COMMITTEE REPORTS. Once a bill is moved out of committee it typically is accompanied by a report--an important element in a bill's documentary history. Reports traditionally provide Members of Congress with the bill's purpose and scope; explanations and justifications for amendments; a section-by-section analysis of the bill; documentation of proposed changes in existing law, where applicable; agency and departmental comments; minority views -- i.e., the perspective and reasoning of the dissenting committee members; and a cost analysis. Reports serve not only as textbooks on a given bill, but also are invaluable references for resolving later disagreements about the intent of the Congress in enacting a bill into law. It has been common practice for committees, including House-Senate conference committees, to write instructions in their reports on how government agencies should interpret and enforce the law.
Consequently, the report language is extremely important. For instance, many appropriations bills (the annual Revenue Forgone appropriation, for example) set out only the amount of money an agency or department might spend. But the accompanying committee report often contains directives on how Congress expects the money to be spent or warnings to bureaucrats not to take certain actions, as when the House and Senate appropriations committees, in a recent Congress, directed the Governors of the Postal Service not to raise nonprofit postal rates when Congress failed to appropriate sufficient funds.
Reports are numbered, by Congress and chamber, in the order in which they are filed (S Rept 101-1, H Rept 101-1, etc.) and immediately printed. The reported bill is also printed with any committee amendments indicated by insertions in italics and deletions in stricken-through type. The report number and the date the bill was formally reported also are shown on the bill. Reports generally are available only during the week in which the bill is being considered on the chamber floor, and copies available from the chamber's document room go quickly.
PROCEDURES IN THE HOUSE
Once a committee has reported a bill to the floor, it is ready for full chamber consideration. On the House side, virtually all legislation is routed to the Rules Committee. The purpose is twofold. First, a special rule makes a bill in order for floor consideration even though it is not at the top of its "calendar." Second, the special rule sets out the guidelines for floor debate and amendment on the legislation.
The power of the Rules Committee is considerable and its role crucial, because it exercises substantial control over the flow of legislation from the committees to the full House. The Rules Committee chairman has wide discretion in arranging the panel's agenda. Scheduling, or not scheduling, a rules hearing on a bill usually determines whether it ever comes before the House for debate.
THE HOUSE RULES PROCESS. Usually the chairman of the committee or subcommittee that reported the bill requests a rule, technically a House resolution specifying a "special order of business." At Rules Committee hearings, the chairman of the legislative committee, supported by the bill's sponsors and other committee members, proposes a rule to the Rules Committee. Members who oppose the bill or who want to offer floor amendments also may testify.
These hearings often serve as a dress rehearsal for the bill's floor managers, since the Rules Committee hearing is the first time a bill may be aired outside the committee. It offers its managers a chance to gauge the reception it is likely to receive from other members. All rules limit the time for general debate on the House floor. Rules also govern amending activity on the floor.
The committee traditionally grants three kinds of rules affecting amendments. An "open rule" permits any germane amendment to be offered on the floor at the appropriate time. A "gag" or "closed" rule bars all but committee amendments. A "modified" rule generally permits amendments only to certain provisions or sections of the bill or to specific subjects dealt with in the bill.
In practical terms, the Rules Committee can either expedite greatly floor consideration of a proposed measure, or present a major roadblock in its path. Rules are debated for one hour, and must be adopted by majority vote before the bill can be considered.
Calendars. When a bill is brought to the floor it is placed on that chamber's calendar and assigned a number. Bills are voted on in order of their placement on the calendar, but there are rules in both chambers that allow a bill to be considered out of sequence.
There are five calendars in the House: the House Union Calendar lists revenue-raising or appropriations bills; the House Calendar lists non-revenue, non-appropriation public bills and resolutions; the House Private Calendar lists private bills such as claims against the government; the Consent Calendar lists non-controversial measures; and the Discharge Calendar (used rarely) forces action on a measure that has been bottled up in committee against the wishes of a majority of the House.
HOUSE FLOOR PROCEDURES. Because of its size, the House adheres strictly to detailed procedures to limit debate on bills and amendments, expedite action, and ensure majority rule. In contrast, the smaller Senate emphasizes minority rights and provides for virtually unlimited debate.
The House tends to operate on a Monday-to -Thursday schedule, with Mondays reserved primarily for non-controversial legislation considered under shortcut procedures such as suspension of the rules or unanimous consent. Sessions are occasionally scheduled for Friday, but the day is often left free so that legislators can return to their districts for the weekend.
Daily sessions normally begin at noon, although earlier meetings are common. The day opens with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by approval of the Journal. Once the Journal has been approved, the Speaker recognizes members for one-minute speeches and submission of material to be inserted in the Congressional Record. Bills are introduced, reports filed, and messages received, mainly from the President and the Senate.
Once this preliminary business is concluded, the House turns to the legislative business of the day. Most major legislation comes to the House floor under a special rule and is subject to a much more elaborate procedure. The process involves three steps: adoption of the rule governing debate on the bill; general debate on the bill itself and consideration of any amendments by the Committee of the Whole; and final passage of the bill by the full House.
Voting in the House proceeds according to the guidelines established by the Rules Committee. It is generally difficult for amendments from the floor to be adopted because of the chamber's need to rely on the expertise of the reporting committee. Floor amendments require considerable support.
Adoption of the Rule. Floor action on a major House bill ordinarily begins when the Speaker recognizes the member of the Rules Committee who has been designated to call up the rule for the bill. The rule may be debated for up to one hour, with half the time allotted to opponents of the rule. A simple majority is sufficient to adopt a rule. Rules are seldom rejected.
Action in the Committee of the Whole. Once the rule has been adopted, the House resolves itself into the "Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union" to debate and amend the legislation. Not a committee in the usual sense, the Committee of the Whole is rather a parliamentary framework to expedite House action. Although all 435 House members are members of the Committee of the Whole, business may be conducted with a quorum of one hundred members rather than the 218 members required in the full House. Twenty-five members, a fourth of a quorum, may demand a recorded vote in the Committee of the Whole; forty-four, a fifth of a quorum, is needed to order a recorded vote in the full House. The Speaker does not preside over the Committee of the Whole but selects another member of the majority party to take the chair.
The Committee of the Whole cannot pass a bill. Instead it reports the measure back to the full House with whatever changes it has made. The House then may pass or reject the bill or recommit it to the legislative committee where it originated. Amendments adopted in the Committee of the Whole may be put to a second vote in the full House. The Committee of the Whole may not recommit a bill, although it may recommend to the full House that the enacting clause be stricken -- a parliamentary motion which, if adopted, kills the measure.
Recommittal as well as other motions must be voted on in the House rather than in the Committee of the Whole. Thus, when such a motion is offered during floor debate, the Committee of the Whole must interrupt its work and go through the formal step of rising and returning to the House to dispose of the motion. The House then reconvenes as the Committee of the Whole to continue debate and amendment of the bill. The Committee of the Whole has no counterpart in the Senate.
General Debate. After resolving into the Committee of the Whole, the first order of business is general debate on the bill. General debate serves both a practical and a symbolic purpose: complicated or controversial provisions of the legislation may be explained, a legislative record developed for the administrative agencies that administer the bill and the courts that interpret it, a public record built on which legislators can campaign.
The rules on most bills allot an hour of general debate, although more time may be granted for particularly controversial measures. The time is divided equally between and controlled by the floor managers for the bill. Ordinarily the chairman of the committee or subcommittee that reported the measure acts as the floor manager for the bill's supporters, while the ranking minority member or his designee leads the opposition. If the ranking minority member supports the legislation, he may allot some of his time to members opposing the bill. A bill that has been referred to more than one committee might have multiple floor managers, each of whom is responsible for the part of the bill that was before his or her committee.
Floor managers are exactly what their name implies -- managers of legislation while it is on the floor of the House marshaling speakers and support for the majority or minority position. Regardless of his personal view on the measure or amendments, the majority floor manager is responsible for presenting the committee's bill in the most favorable light and for fending off undesirable amendments. The mark of a successful majority floor manager is his ability to get a bill passed without substantial change. The minority manager is expected to line up convincing arguments against the legislation and for amendments, if the rule permits, that would make the measure more acceptable to the opposition.
Amendments may change the intent, conditions, or requirements of a bill; modify, delete, or introduce provisions; or replace a section or the entire text of a bill with a different version. Amendments that seek to revise or modify parts of bills or other amendments are called "perfecting amendments." Amendments that seek to add extraneous matter to the bill under debate are called "riders." House rules require amendments to be germane, or relevant, to the bill itself, consequently riders are not as common in the House as they are in the Senate. Any member may raise a point of order on the floor that an amendment is not germane, but if there is general agreement on the need or desirability of a unrelated amendment, the point of order may never be raised.
"Substitute amendments" aim at replacing pending amendments with alternatives. A variation of the substitute, known as an amendment "in the nature of a substitute," seeks to replace the pending bill with an entirely new measure. The bill reported by the committee frequently is an amendment in the nature of a substitute for the original bill; the rule for its debate typically stipulates that it shall be considered the original bill for purposes of amendment.
Once general debate is completed on any bill that has been given an open rule, the measure is read for amendment. The special rule usually specifies that each part of a bill must be considered in sequential order. The bill may be read paragraph by paragraph, section by section, or title by title, and amendments are offered to the appropriate part as it is read. Once the reading of that part is completed, amendments to it are no longer in order except by unanimous consent. On occasion the Rules Committee may allow the bill to be considered as read and open to amendment at any part. Alternatively, the floor manager may make a unanimous consent request that the bill be open to amendment. Committee amendments are always considered before amendments offered from the floor. Debate on any amendment is theoretically limited to five minutes for supporters and five minutes for opponents.
Action by the Full House. When the Committee of the Whole has completed its work, it "rises," according to the House's parliamentary terminology. The Speaker returns to the chair and the chairman of the Committee of the Whole formally reports the bill to the House with any amendments that have been passed.
If the previous question has been ordered by the special rule governing the bill, the full House then votes immediately on amendments approved by the Committee of the Whole. Any member may demand a roll call on any amendment adopted in the Committee of the Whole. Amendments not considered separately can be approved by a voice vote.
Once the amendments have been disposed of, the question is on "engrossment" (the preparation of an accurate version of the bill including all amendments). At this point, a member opposed to the bill may offer a motion to recommit the measure to the committee that reported it.
There are two kinds of recommittal motions: a simple motion to recommit (which kills the bill if it is adopted) and a motion to recommit with instructions. If adopted, the instructions become part of the legislation. If the motion to recommit is rejected, the next step is the vote on final passage.
If the bill is passed, a pro-forma motion to reconsider the final vote is usually offered. A supporter of the bill then offers a counter motion to "lay the motion on the table," or kill reconsideration, thus safeguarding final passage. With that, the bill is considered to be formally passed by the House.
At this point, the bill officially becomes an "act," although it generally still is referred to as a bill. An engrossed copy of the bill, including changes made during floor action, is certified in its final form by the clerk of the House and transmitted to the Senate for its consideration.
PROCEDURES IN THE SENATE
SCHEDULING. Scheduling in the Senate is primarily the responsibility of the majority leader, who works closely with his party's policy committee, committee chairmen, and other colleagues to develop a legislative program acceptable to his party. Because of the need to secure unanimous consent to bring up a bill, the majority leader also works closely with the minority leader and his staff in working out the schedule. This bipartisan cooperation is in sharp contrast to the House, where scheduling is solely a responsibility of the majority party.
All legislation reported from Senate committees is placed on the Calendar of General Orders, while all treaties and nominations that require the Senate's "advice and consent" are placed on the Executive Calendar. Senate rules require bills and reports to lie over on the calendar for one legislative day before they are brought to the floor. This rule is usually waived by unanimous consent, but another rule that requires that printed committee reports be available to members for two days before the measure is debated is generally observed.
UNANIMOUS CONSENT AGREEMENTS. There are two kinds of unanimous consent requests. Simple requests and complex unanimous consent requests set out the guidelines under which a piece of major legislation will be considered on the floor. These unanimous consent requests usually state when the bill will come to the floor and set time limits on debate, including debate on motions, amendments, and final passage. For that reason they are often referred to as time agreements.
Frequently the agreements stipulate that any amendments offered must be germane, but, unlike House rules, they rarely limit the number of amendments that may be offered. As its name implies, a unanimous consent request may be blocked by a single objection. Once the request is agreed to, however, its terms are binding and can be changed only by another unanimous consent request.
Negotiating a complex unanimous consent agreement can be complicated and time-consuming, involving the majority and minority leaders, the chairman and ranking minority member of the committee and/or subcommittee with jurisdiction for the bill, and any Senator who has placed a "hold" on or otherwise expressed strong interest in the measure.
A "hold" is a request by a Senator to the party leadership asking that a certain measure not be taken up. The leadership usually respects most holds; to do otherwise would likely be self-defeating since the Senator could easily block any unanimous consent request to consider the measure.
Most holds are kept confidential and are requested simply so that the Senator will be told when the bill is likely to come up. But some Senators have used them extensively as bargaining tools, to ensure that they will be able to offer their amendments or to force the leadership to call up some unrelated piece of legislation that otherwise might not have been scheduled for the floor. Senators also have placed holds on legislation in behalf of the administration or an interest group.
SENATE FLOOR PROCEDURES. The Senate usually convenes at noon, although the leadership frequently changes the time, by unanimous consent, to accommodate the daily workload. The Senate chaplain gives an opening prayer, and the previous day's Journal is approved. The majority leader and minority leader are recognized in turn for up to ten minutes each. The majority leader usually announces his plan for the day's business, which is developed in consultation with the minority leadership.
Senators who have requested time in advance are recognized for "special orders"; they may speak on any topic for five minutes. After special orders, the Senate usually conducts "morning business." During morning business Senators may introduce bills, receive reports from committees and messages from the President, and conduct other routine chores.
Once morning business is completed, the Senate may consider legislative or executive matters. To begin work on a piece of legislation the majority leader normally asks for unanimous consent to call up the measure. If any member objects, the leader may make a debatable motion that the Senate take up the bill. The motion gives opponents the opportunity to launch a filibuster, or extended debate, even before the Senate officially begins to consider the bill.
Floor Debate. Once a bill is brought to the floor for consideration, floor managers take over the task of guiding the legislation through the amendment process and final passage. As in the House, the chairman and ranking minority member of the committee or subcommittee with jurisdiction for the bill act as the majority and minority floor managers. Floor managers play much the same role in the Senate as they do in the House, mapping strategy for passing the bill, deflecting debilitating or undesirable amendments, offering amendments to attract additional support, and seeing that members in favor of the bill turn out to vote for it.
On measures brought to the floor under a unanimous consent agreement, the time allotted for debate is usually divided evenly between the two opposing sides. If there is no time agreement, any Senator may seek recognition from the chair. The chair, however, usually recognizes first the majority manager and then the minority manager. Once recognized, a senator may speak as long as he or she likes and on any subject unless he or she violates the rules of the Senate. A Senator may yield temporarily for the consideration of other business or to another Senator who wants to ask a question, but he or she may not parcel out time to other members, as floor managers in the House typically do.
The Amending Process. The flexibility that marks the Senate's rules of procedure also characterizes its amending process. When a bill is taken up for consideration on the Senate floor, any part of the measure is open immediately to amendment. Unlike the House, the Senate is not bound by a five-minute rule governing debate on amendments. Unless limited by a unanimous consent agreement, or "cloture," debate on amendments may continue until no senator seeks recognition.
In most instances, amendments need not be germane, and the number of amendments that may be offered is rarely limited. Unanimous consent requests may disallow unrelated amendments, but they seldom limit the number of germane amendments that may be offered. Once cloture is invoked, the Senate may consider only those germane amendments proposed before cloture was voted.
In voting on amendments, the Senate makes frequent use of a procedural device known as "tabling" to block or kill amendments. When approved, a motion to "lay on the table" is considered the final disposition of that issue. The motion is not debatable, and adoption requires a simple majority vote. By voting to table, a senator can avoid being recorded directly on a controversial amendment to a politically sensitive issue.
Filibusters and Cloture. In its most extreme form, the Senate's tradition of unlimited debate can turn into a filibuster -- the deliberate use of extended debate or procedural delays to block action on a measure supported by a majority of members. Any controversial legislation that comes to the floor without a prearranged time agreement is vulnerable to filibuster. Filibustering is most likely to be successful near the end of a congressional session, when a filibuster on one bill may imperil action on other more urgent legislation. Filibusters may be intended to kill a measure outright by forcing the leadership to pull the measure off the floor so that it can move on to other business, but they are often mounted to force a compromise on the measure.
A filibuster can be ended by negotiating a compromise on the disputed matter. The Senate also has been able to invoke cloture to cut off a filibuster--a procedure that requires sixteen senators to sign a cloture petition and file it with the presiding officer of the Senate. Two days later, and one hour after the Senate convenes and the presiding officer establishes the presence of a quorum, the Senate may consider a cloture motion. If three-fifths of the Senate votes in favor of the motion, cloture is invoked.
Final Senate Action. Once debate on all amendments has ended, a final vote is taken. Most bills are passed by voice vote with only a handful of Senators present. Any member can request a roll-call vote on an amendment or on final passage of a measure.
After the final vote is announced, the Senate must go through the same procedure of moving to reconsider used in the House. A Senator who voted for the bill (or who did not vote) moves to reconsider the vote; a second Senator who voted for the bill moves to table the motion to reconsider, and the tabling motion is almost always adopted by voice vote.
Before a bill can be sent to the President for his signature, it must be approved in identical form by both chambers of Congress. After a bill has been passed by one house, an engrossed copy -- a final version including all changes made during floor action -- is transmitted to the other chamber. Even though both the Senate and the House often consider similar bills, it is rare that the chambers pass them in identical versions.
On most noncontroversial legislation, the second chamber simply agrees to the version approved by the first chamber. When that occurs, no further legislative action is required, and the bill can be submitted to the President.
On virtually all major legislation, however, the second chamber approves a version that differs, sometimes radically, from the measure adopted by the first chamber. When that happens, the second chamber has two options. It may return the bill to the chamber of origin, which then has the choice of accepting the second chamber's amendments, accepting them with further amendments, or disagreeing to the other version and requesting a House-Senate conference. A conference cannot take place unless both chambers agree to one.
SELECTION OF CONFEREES. The two chambers have different rules for selecting conferees, or "managers," as they are formally called, but in practice both follow similar procedures. House rules grant the Speaker the right to appoint conferees, but he usually does so only after consultation with the chairman and ranking minority member of the committee having jurisdiction over the legislation. Senate rules allow the chamber as a whole to elect conferees, but the common practice is for the presiding officer to appoint conferees on the recommendation of the appropriate committee chairman and ranking minority member. The chairman of the committee that handled the legislation usually selects himself, the ranking minority member, and other members of the committee. If a subcommittee has exercised major responsibility for a bill, some of its members may be chosen.
AUTHORITY OF CONFEREES. House and Senate conferees are limited to resolving matters in disagreement between the two chambers. They are not authorized to delete provisions or language that both chambers have agreed to or to draft entirely new provisions. When the disagreement involves numbers, such as the level of funding in appropriations bills, conferees are supposed to stay within the amounts proposed by the two houses.
Once in conference, each chamber has one vote, regardless of the number of conferees. If the conference committee reaches an agreement, it writes a conference report that may contain both the bill and the conference recommendations. The conference report goes first to the chamber that agreed to conference. In the Senate, a conference report must receive immediate consideration and may be called up unexpectedly. On the House side, unless the rule is waived, conference reports must be made available three days before floor consideration.
If the chamber first receiving the conference report adopts that report, it is referred to the other chamber for final approval. If the chamber first receiving the conference report declines it, the bill is recommitted to conference by majority vote of that chamber. The second chamber has two options: its acceptance constitutes final approval; its rejection (very rare) results in a dead bill, unless there is a concurrent resolution from both chambers to recommit the measure to conference.
FINAL LEGISLATIVE ACTION
After both houses have given final approval to a bill, a final copy of the bill, known as the "enrolled bill," is prepared by the enrolling clerk of the chamber in which the bill originated, printed on parchment, and certified as correct by the secretary of the Senate or the clerk of the House, depending on which chamber originated the measure. No matter where the bill originated, it is signed first by the Speaker of the House and then by the President pro tempore of the Senate, and sent to the White House.
Once Congress passes a bill, it is sent to the President for his or her signature. If the President signs the bill, it immediately becomes law and is sent to the General Services Administration for publication. The President may veto the bill within ten days (Sundays excluded) of receiving it from Congress. If the veto option is exercised, the bill is returned to Congress along with the President's written objections.
Following Presidential veto, the measure is sent to the originating chamber where a 2/3 majority of members present may override that veto. When both chambers override a Presidential veto, the bill becomes law. Alternatively, the President may elect to allow the bill to become law without his signature, which occurs if he takes no action within the specified ten-day period and Congress has not yet adjourned. If the Congress passes a bill near adjournment of its second session, the President may hold the measure until after the Congress adjourns and allow it to die by "pocket veto."
This section is intended to provide a general sense of how legislation moves through the maze, and is not intended to explain every conceivable twist and turn in the pathway. The process plainly can be tortuous and more than corroborates President Woodrow Wilson's observation that "once you begin the dance of legislation, you must struggle through its mazes as best you can to the breathless end -- if any end there be."