How a Bill Becomes a Law

The main responsibility of Congress is to ensure that our nation has the laws and regulations that we need to succeed. To do this, Senators and Members of the House of Representatives propose ideas, called bills, that they hope will one day become law. This process, though, can be extremely complicated and, often times, confusing.

One fun and easy way to gain a basic understanding of this process is to watch this classic cartoon by School House Rock, called "I'm Just a Bill":

Below, I have outlined how our legislative process works. As an example, I chose one piece of legislation that I introduced, The Diesel Emissions Reduction Act of 2005, and show how that bill went from just being an idea to becoming a new law.

If you would like even more information about how a bill becomes a law, you can visit this website created by the Library of Congress.

1. Have an Idea.

The first step in creating a new law -- or revising an existing law --  is to have an idea of how we can make our country stronger or better. This idea can come from anywhere, including from you!

I often meet with Delawareans and Americans who see a problem and come to me to find a way that we can fix it. I had long been concerned that dirty air emitted from a variety of sources posed serious public health and environmental threats. This problem was particularly relevant in Delaware which, along with other mid-Atlantic states, is part of America’s so-called ‘tail pipe’ that receives a lot of other states’ dirty air. In 2004, my staff and I, working with other stakeholdersseized on a possible solution to address some key sources of dirty air emissions.   We recognized that many trucks and other large vehicles, including school buses, were using old, dirty diesel engines, which polluted our environment and harmed the health of our families. I decided that this was a problem that should, and could, be fixed, so I began working with my fellow Senators, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and private citizens to find a solution.

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2. Write a Bill.

After identifying the problem, Members of Congress work to create a law that provides a solution.  Sometimes, they will work together to jointly introduce legislation with other Senators.  Senators can also collaborate with members of the House of Representatives on legislation so that identical or very similar bills are introduced in both the House and the Senate. The Senator or Senators who introduce the bill are known as sponsors and they are the primary champions of the legislation. Other Senators, who did not introduce the legislation themselves but who also want to express strong support for the bill, can sign on as a cosponsor.  After being introduced, the bill is sent to the Senate Parliamentarian who assigns it to a specific committee or committees for further deliberation.

I worked with Senator George V. Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio, to find a solution to the pollution created by diesel trucks and other large vehicles. After weeks of working together, we introduced the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act of 2005 (DERA). This bill authorized the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a program to promote diesel clean-up efforts. This is accomplished by awarding funds as grants and small loans to agencies and states to help upgrade technology and equipment related to diesel vehicles and make them cleaner. Because this was commonsense legislation, 22 of our Senate colleagues, from both sides of the aisle, signed on as cosponsors.

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3. Debate in Committee

When a bill is introduced, the Senate Parliamentarian is responsible for deciding which Committee should review the legislation. The chair of the committee may decide to hold a hearing in order to examine the legislation. During a hearing, committee members invite policy experts, agency representatives, and other stakeholders to testify on how the bill will affect the country.  After holding a hearing or hearings, the chair of the committee can decide to hold a "markup" during which committee members debate, modify, and ultimately vote for or against the bill.  If the majority of the committee members vote favorably for the bill, it is advanced to the Senate floor, where every Senator has an opportunity to review and debate the legislation. Sometimes, less controversial pieces of legislation will be included in related larger bills as amendments in order to help speed up the legislative process.

The Senate Parliamentarian assigned DERA to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which I serve on. Because this was well crafted, bipartisan legislation our colleagues on the Committee did not deem it necessary to make any amendments to our bill. The bill was voted upon favorably by the committee on June 20, 2005, during a markup and was placed on the Senate calendar for consideration. At this point, Senator Voinovich and I made the decision to include our bill as an Amendment into a larger energy bill that originated in the House of Representatives, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (H.R. 6). We did this to ensure that our legislation had the greatest chance of passing Congress as soon as possible.

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4. Debate on the Senate Floor

After being voted upon favorably by a committee, the bill is referred to the full Senate for a vote. Here, the Majority Leader of the Senate is responsible for deciding when to bring up a piece of legislation for a vote and what type of vote it needs. Sometimes, a non-controversial bill will be “hotlined”, which means the Majority Leader and Minority Leader -- after consulting with their Senate colleagues -- agree to pass the legislation by unanimous consent and without a roll-call vote in order to save time by moving legislation more quickly. Often times, though, legislation requires more debate and must be discussed in-depth on the Senate floor. During the floor debate, every Senator is given the opportunity to speak for or against a bill and multiple votes are taken to move the bill through the legislative process.  After much debate and consideration, the Majority leader may schedule a vote with all the Senators. If this route is taken, a series of votes must be taken in order for a bill to pass the Senate. First, the Senate must agree to consider the legislation by voting on a "Motion to Proceed" which indicates the start of debate. After all Senators have had the opportunity to discuss the legislation, a “Motion to End Debate” or a "Cloture Vote" is made, which then brings the Senate to one final vote on the legislation.

After including DERA as part of H.R. 6, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, as an Amendment, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) was responsible for deciding when the legislation was ready for a full vote in the Senate.  On June 28, 2005, H.R. 6, which included our DERA Amendment, was voted on in the Senate and passed by a staggering 85-12!

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5. Work with House Colleagues

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is responsible for introducing and voting on a companion bill of its own. Just like in the Senate, when a bill is introduced in the House, the House Parliamentarian is responsible for assigning that legislation to a specific House committee or committees for further deliberation. Sometimes the House authors will give the bill a different title and sometimes the House Parliamentarian will give the legislation a different bill number than its Senate companion.  Ultimately, a law can only be passed if both the Senate and the House of Representatives introduce, debate, and vote on similar pieces of legislation.

During 2005, the House had been working hard to pass a large Energy Bill, H.R. 6, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which Senator Voinovich and I believed would be a great vehicle for our DERA legislation. We began working with Representative Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas and the main sponsor of H.R. 6, to include DERA into his larger energy bill. Fortunately, he saw the value of our Amendment and did not make any changes before including it in his legislation.

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6. Negotiate Compromises in Conference

Often times, the Senate bill and the House bill will have minor differences 

Often times, the Senate bill and the House bill will have minor differences in their respective bills that have to be worked out before each chamber can approve the final legislative text and then send it to the President to be signed into law.  When this happens, a special conference committee made up of members from both the Senate and the House will work together to come to consensus about the different provisions in the bill.

Fortunately in the case of DERA, a Conference Committee was not necessary because there were not differences in the House and Senate versions of the amendment.

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7. Send it to the President for a signature

After the conference committee resolves any differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, each chamber must vote again to approve the final bill text.  Once each chamber has approved the bill, the legislation is sent to the President.   The President then makes the decision of whether to sign the bill into law or not. If the President signs the bill, it becomes a law.  If the President refuses to sign it, the bill does not become a law. When the President refuses to sign the bill, the result is called a veto. Congress can try to overrule a veto. To do this, both the Senate and the House must vote to overrule the President’s veto by a two-thirds majority. If that happens, the President's veto is overruled and the bill becomes a law.

The President signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (H.R. 6), including our Amendment, the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, into law on August 8, 2005. No need for Congress to try to overrule a veto!

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8. Reauthorization

Some laws, especially laws that appropriate funding to new programs, include provisions that require Congress to decide, after a set period of time, whether the legislation is effective and should be renewed, or “reauthorized”. To do this, a new bill must be introduced that renews the provisions of the law, makes any necessary changes to the original law, and offers a new timeline for how long it is active.

In 2010, I worked once again with Senator Voinovich to reauthorize the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act. Fortunately, the 2005 legislation was very successful at cleaning the air and protecting public health and the environment by effectively reducing harmful emissions from trucks and other large vehicles with old dirty diesel engines. The second time around, 31 of our Senate Colleagues signed on as cosponsors and helped move our bill through the Senate and House with unanimous support! Return to Top