How a Bill Becomes Law

National Human Genome Research Institute

National Institutes of Health
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


How a Bill Becomes Law

There are potentially 10 steps a bill can go through before becoming a law. Below is a description of each step in the process, using the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act of 2003 (S. 1053), as an example.

Step 1: A Bill Is Born
Anyone may draft a bill; however, only members of Congress can introduce legislation, and, by doing so, become the sponsor(s). The president, a member of the cabinet or the head of a federal agency can also propose legislation, although a member of Congress must introduce it.

Photo of Senator Olympia Snowe On May 13, 2003, Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) introduced the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act of 2003 (S. 1053).
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S. 1053 was referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP). Step 2: Committee Action
As soon as a bill is introduced, it is referred to a committee. At this point the bill is examined carefully and its chances for passage are first determined. If the committee does not act on a bill, the bill is effectively "dead."

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Step 3: Subcommittee Review
Often, bills are referred to a subcommittee for study and hearings. Hearings provide the opportunity to put on the record the views of the executive branch, experts, other public officials and supporters, and opponents of the legislation.

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On May 21, 2003, the Senate HELP Committee held a mark up of S. 1053. Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chair of the HELP Committee, offered an amendment to the bill. Step 4: Mark up
When the hearings are completed, the subcommittee may meet to "mark up" the bill; that is, make changes and amendments prior to recommending the bill to the full committee. If a subcommittee votes not to report legislation to the full committee, the bill dies. If the committee votes for the bill, it is sent to the floor.

Photo of Senator Judd Gregg On July 2, 2003, Senator Gregg presented a dynamic argument for the protection of genetic privacy. "In the years since Crick and Watson's discovery ... there have been reservations with what we will do with this new information we are uncovering. Unlocking our genetic code unleashes new power. And power produces new responsibilities in protecting the privacy of our genetic information."
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Step 5: Committee Action to Report a Bill
After receiving a subcommittee's report on a bill the full committee votes on its recommendation to the House or Senate. This procedure is called "ordering a bill reported."

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The Senate voted on S. 1053 on Oct. 14, 2003. It passed by a vote of 95 to 0. Step 6: Voting
After the debate and the approval of any amendments, the bill is passed or defeated by the members voting.

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Step 7: Referral to Other Chamber
When the House or Senate passes a bill, it is referred to the other chamber, where it usually follows the same route through committee and floor action. This chamber may approve the bill as received, reject it, ignore it, or change it.

S. 1053 was referred to the House of Representatives where it now waits for action.
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Step 8: Conference Committee Action
Photo of conferees meeting When the actions of the other chamber significantly alter the bill, a conference committee is formed to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions. If the conferees are unable to reach agreement, the legislation dies. If agreement is reached, a conference report is prepared describing the committee members' recommendations for changes. Both the House and Senate must approve the conference report.

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Step 9: Final Action
After both the House and Senate have approved a bill in identical form, it is sent to the president. If the president approves of the legislation, he signs it and it becomes law. Or, if the president takes no action for ten days, while Congress is in session, it automatically becomes law.If the president opposes the bill he can veto it; or if he takes no action after the Congress has adjourned its second session, it is a "pocket veto" and the legislation dies.

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Scales of Justice Image Step 10: Overriding a Veto
If the president vetoes a bill, Congress may attempt to "override the veto." If both the Senate and the House pass the bill by a two-thirds majority, the president's veto is overruled and the bill becomes a law.

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Last Reviewed: March 12, 2012