The legislative process at both the federal and state levels has grown exceedingly complex since the framers of our Constitution created the Legislative Branch and much of the processes are unique to each house of Congress and each state. While the primary function of the legislative branch is to make the laws that govern the country, the legislative process itself is rife with rules, formalities, and traditions that have evolved throughout our country’s history.
This summary provides the nuts and bolts of the legislative process at the federal level. A more detailed description is available in Thomas: How Our Laws Are Made. For information about the processes at the state level, see the state legislative resources section below.
Proposed drafts of bills originate from a variety of sources, but one of the most common sources is from a member of Congress him or herself. The idea may have come from an election campaign promise or after taking office and becoming aware of the need to amend or repeal an existing law, or enact a new statute.
Constituents, either individuals or citizen groups, are also afforded the right to petition and transmit their proposals to their elected member—a right guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
State legislatures may also “memorialize” Congress to enact specified federal laws by passing resolutions to be transmitted to the House and Senate. A member may then introduce the proposal as the State drafted it, or may revise it.
“Executive communication” has increasingly become a prominent source of legislative proposals. A member of the President’s Cabinet, the head of an agency, or the President may write a letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives or the President of the Senate transmitting a draft proposed bill. The communication is then referred to the standing committee or committees with jurisdiction over the subject matter in the proposal. One of the most important and regular executive communications is the annual message from the President transmitting the proposed budget to Congress. This proposal serves as the basis of the several appropriation bills that are drafted by the House Appropriations Committee.
In some cases, a draft bill is the result of a lengthy study by a commission or committee designated by the President or member of the Cabinet. The Administrative Procedure Act is an example of a statute resulting from such a study. Congressional committees also sometimes draft bills after studies and hearings on topics.
If you or your organization has an idea for legislation, contact the offices of your House and Senate representatives and talk to staff assigned to that issue area to see if the Member would be willing to champion your proposal. Relevant committees may also be interested in your ideas. Consider meeting with committee staff (in theHouse or Senate) or individual committee members. If interested, individual member’s staff or committee staff will work with you and the Office of Legislative Counsel in either the House or the Senate to draft legislation. See lobbying tips for more information about meeting with congressional members.
Congressional Action is initiated by the introduction of a proposal as either a bill, a joint resolution, a concurrent resolution, or a simple resolution. The most common form used in both houses is the bill.
A bill is used for most legislation and may originate in either the House or the Senate, except for bills raising revenue, which must originate in the House. By tradition, general appropriation bills also originate in the House. Bills are tracked by number preceded by either “H.R.” (for “House of Representatives”) or “S” (for “Senate”) depending on its origination. A “companion bill” is a bill introduced in one house of Congress that is similar or identical to a bill introduced in the other house.
A bill that has been agreed to in identical form by both houses becomes law after:
- Presidential approval; or
- failure by the President to return it with objections to the house in which it originated within 10 days while Congress is in session; or
- a presidential veto is overridden by a two-thirds vote in each house.
Joint resolutions may originate in either house. There is little practical difference between a bill and a joint resolution and the two forms are often used interchangeably. One difference in form is that a joint resolution may include a preamble preceding the resolving clause. Statutes that have been initiated as bill have later been amended by a joint resolution and vice versa.
Joint resolutions become law in the same manner as bills, with the exception of proposed amendments to the Constitution. When a joint resolution amending the Constitution is approved by two-thirds of both houses it is not presented to the President for approval. Instead, it is sent to the several states where ratification by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states (within the period of time prescribed in the joint resolution) is necessary for the amendment to become part of the Constitution.
A joint resolution originating in the House of Representatives is designated “H.J. Res.” followed by a number and a joint resolution originating in the Senate is designated “S.J. Res.” followed by its number.
A matter affecting the operations of both houses is usually initiated by a concurrent resolution. Concurrent and simple resolutions normally are not legislative in character and are not “presented” to the President for approval. Instead they are used to express facts, principles, opinions, and purposes of the two houses. The term “concurrent” does not indicate simultaneous introduction in both houses.
A concurrent resolution originating in the House of Representatives is designated “H. Con. Res.” followed by a number and a Senate concurrent resolution is designated “S. Con. Res.” with a number.
A matter concerning the rules, the operation, or the opinion of either house alone is initiated by a simple resolution. A resolution affecting the House of Representatives is designated "H. Res." followed by its number, while a Senate resolution is designated "S. Res." together with its number. Simple resolutions are considered only by the body in which they were introduced.
In the House, any member may introduce a bill at any time the House is in session by placing it in the “hopper,” a wooden box located on the side of the rostrum in the House Chamber. No permission is required. The Member introducing the bill is known as the primary sponsor and there may be an unlimited number of Members that cosponsor a bill.
In the Senate, a Senator usually introduces a bill or resolution by presenting it to one of the clerks at the Presiding Officer’s desk. A Senator may also use a more formal procedure by standing and introducing the bill or resolution from the floor.
After a measure is introduced it is referred to the appropriate committee. If there is more than one committee with jurisdiction over the issue, it may be referred to multiple committees (see a list of committees in the House and Senate). Each committee's jurisdiction is divided into certain subject matters under the rules of each house and all measures affecting a particular area of the law are referred to the committee with jurisdiction over that particular subject matter.
Perhaps the most important phase of the legislative process is the action by committees. Committees provide the most intensive consideration to a proposed measure and are the primary forum where the public is given an opportunity to be heard.
One of the first actions taken by a committee is to seek the input of the relevant departments and agencies about a bill. Frequently, the bill is also submitted to the General Accounting Office with a request for an official report of views on the necessity or desirability of enacting the bill into law. Reports of the departments and agencies in the executive branch are submitted first to the Office of Management and Budget to determine whether they are consistent with the program of the President.
If the bill is of sufficient importance, the committee may hold a public hearing (link to series) to allow committee members to hear witnesses with various viewpoints on the issue. After hearings are complete, the bill is considered in a session knows as the “mark-up.” Members study the measure in detail, amendments may be offered and the committee members vote to accept or reject the changes. Mark-up can take place at the subcommittee level, the full committee level, or both. At the subcommittee level, the committee may vote to report the bill favorably to the full committee, with or without amendment, unfavorably, or without recommendation. The subcommittee may also suggest that the committee "table" the measure or postpone action indefinitely. If the committee votes to report a bill, a Committee Report is written. This report describes the purpose and scope of the measure and the reasons for recommended approval.
Substantive environmental law is often made, and more often attempted, by attaching new environmental restrictions or, more often, eliminating environmental protections, through amendments to appropriation bills. These riders sometimes give agencies discretion to ignore environmental and natural resource statutes, while denying the public the ability to challenge the actions through administrative and judicial channels. An example of a rider is the 1996 salvage timber rider.
Consideration of a measure by the full House or Senate can be a simple or very complex operation. In general, a measure is ready for consideration by the full chamber after it has been reported (reviewed and moved forward) by a committee.
In the House, consideration of a measure may be governed by a "rule." A rule is itself a simple resolution, which must be passed by the House that sets out the particulars of debate for a specific bill—how much time will be allowed for debate, whether amendments can be offered, and other matters.
In the Senate there is unlimited debate and an unlimited opportunity to offer amendments (or riders), relevant or not, to the measure under consideration. The only way for the Senate to terminate extended debate is by unanimous consent, compromise, or pure exhaustion. A cloture is the only procedure by which the Senate can vote to place a time limit on consideration of a bill, but only by a vote of three-fifths of the full Senate. Under normal circumstances, a simple majority of Senators must be present to vote on a measure.
After all debate is concluded and amendments decided upon, the House and Senate vote on final passage. In some cases, a vote to "recommit" the bill to committee is requested. This is usually an effort by opponents to change or table the measure. If the attempt to recommit fails, a vote on final passage is ordered.
A bill cannot become law until it has been approved in identical form by both houses of Congress. Once the Senate amends and agrees to a bill that the House has already passed or the House amends and passes a Senate bill, the two houses may begin to resolve their legislative differences by way of a conference committee or through an exchange of amendments between the houses.
If the Senate changes the language of a measure, it must return the measure to the House for concurrence or additional changes. This back-and-forth negotiation may occur on the House floor, with the House accepting or rejecting Senate amendments or complete Senate text. Often a conference committee will be appointed with both House and Senate members to resolve differences. This group will resolve the differences in committee and report the identical measure back to both bodies for a vote. Conference committees also issue reports outlining the final version of the bill.
After a measure has been passed in identical form by both the House and Senate, it is considered "enrolled." It is sent to the President who may sign the measure into law, veto it and return it to Congress, let it become law without signature (if the President does not return a bill with objections within 10 days it becomes law), or at the end of a session pocket-veto the measure.
If you are planning to meet with your state or federal legislative member, consider the following tips.
Thanks to Sara Tucker, Director of Government Relations, Trout Unlimited.
1. Before the Meeting
- Do your homework on the office you will be visiting. Know what committees and subcommittees the representative is on and any other important roles they play. (Are they the Chair? The Ranking Member?) This could be important information as to how much influence they have over an issue.
- Familiarize yourself with their voting history on the issue in question, issues of importance to their constituents, who their primary financial contributors are, matters of personal interest, and other hot issues currently on their plate.
- Find out if there is anything you can thank them for (even if it is unrelated). Saying “thank you” is a good way to start out on the right foot.
- Identify who will be the key spokespeople for your group and make a plan for who will cover which issues. Make sure that everyone has a role and has something to say.
- Organize an agenda with the most important points first in case that is all you have time to talk about.
- Determine your “ask”— what is it you want the representative or staff member to do?
- Prepare succinct, informative handouts to leave behind.
2. At the Meeting
- Thank the person for his or her time. Congressional staff are generally over worked and under thanked.
- Introduce group members and organizations.
- If you are a constituent of the member with whom you are visiting, be sure to mention that. Members are especially interested in what their constituents think. Also explain why the issue is important to you personally, or important to the Member’s state or district.
- Gather any intelligence on timing or status of the legislation you are interested in. (Where is the bill in the process? When will there likely be a vote? Will there be hearings?)
- Stay on message.
- Be professional but assertive.
- Ask for something and get a commitment— either on a vote or another desired action.
- Tell staff you will get back to them when you cannot answer a question.
- Try to allow them half of the talking time.
- Be prepared to be a resource. They may have questions for you about other related issues.
- Leave relevant materials and thank them again for their time.
- Let them know you will be in touch again as the issue in question unfolds or votes are held.
3. After the Meeting
- Write down notes to help you remember important points from the meeting.
- Respond to any questions you were unable to answer during the meeting.
- Send a thank you note and any other relevant information.
- Follow up again once a vote approaches or the issue moves forward.
For other tips on communicating with your elected officials, see the Colorado Environmental Coalition.
U.S. House of Representatives
Official web site of the House of Representatives. Includes links for Committees, Members, the Congressional Schedule, and background on the legislative process.
Official web site of the Senate. Includes links for Committees, Senators, the Committee Hearing Schedule, and background on the workings of the Senate.
Legislative information from the Library of Congress, including the ability to search for legislation in the current Congress, committee reports, the Congressional Record, and a wealth of other information and resources.
Thomas “How Our Laws Are Made”
A complete description of the legislative process.
United States Code (U.S.C.)
The U.S. Code, searchable by keyword and a table of popular names of acts that have been signed into law.
Minute by minute updates on what is happening on the floors of Congress.
Library of Congress
Links to Members, Committees, and independent entities like the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).
Congressional Record, Congressional Bills, Committee Reports and Hearing Transcripts, and other Federal Government information.
Congressional Research Service Reports
Nonpartisan reports related to the Environment, prepared by the Congressional Research Service in response to requests by Members of Congress. Online compiled by the National Library for the Environment.
Reports by the General Accounting Office, usually requested by Congress, evaluating the implementation of laws or regulations. Reports are searchable by subject, date, title.
Legislation tracker, legislative process, congressional profile, directory and more.
Appropriations Quick Guide, Legislation tracker The Policy Newsletter and Legislation Tracker is published and distributed via email every Monday. Focused on federal forest policy, this publication includes recent news, information on recent and upcoming hearings, and information on legislation introduced during the 110th Congress. Email to be added to the mailing list. Please write "subscribe – policy newsletter" in the subject line.
Project Vote Smart
Includes biographical data on representatives and candidates, campaign finances, issue positions, voting records, interest group ratings, legislation status, and issue links. Find your federal and state representatives by entering your zip code.
A nonpartisan guide to money’s influence on U.S. elections and public policy. Includes contribution reports by geographic area and interest groups, personal financial disclosures, and news and analysis.
Links to full text of state statutes, constitutions and other legislative resources
National Conference of State Legislatures
A bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of all 50 states, commonwealths and territories. NCSL provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues.
Alaska State Legislature
Website of the Alaska State Legislative body.
Arizona State Legislature
Website of the Arizona State legislative body.
California State Legislature
Website of the California State legislative body.
Colorado General Assembly
Website of the Colorado State legislative body.
Website of the Montana State legislative body.
New Mexico Legislature
Website of the New Mexico State legislative body.
Website of the Nevada State legislative body.
Oregon State Legislature
Web site of the Oregon State legislative body.
Washington State Legislature
Web site of the Washington State legislative body.
Wyoming State Legislature
Web site of the Wyoming State legislative body.