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Legislation and the Law

Guide to Legislation and the Law

July 31, 2000

The purpose of this guide is to assist individuals in becoming more informed about the legislative process and how to obtain information from elected representatives. To some people, the extent of their knowledge of how government operates is limited to a high school civics course. The process of creation and implementation of laws is very complex and can overwhelm individuals looking for answers as to why the government is not addressing their concerns. This problem is especially damaging to people who are already underrepresented in society. Our intent is that this guide will assist people in understanding how to obtain information from their representatives and understanding the creation of new law.

How Laws Are Made

Laws begin as proposals made in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. A bill can begin in either chamber, except spending bills, which must originate in the House before moving on to the Senate. When a bill is proposed it is read first to the full House, then sent to the appropriate committee for review. Many times bills do not fall under the jurisdiction of a single committee and are sent to multiple committees for review.

When a bill is sent to a committee, the committee schedules hearings and invites experts to come and speak on the legislation under consideration. Once the hearings are finished, the committee proceeds to mark-up the legislation. They amend the bill by putting in new provisions and/or eliminating others. A bill sent into a committee can return looking completely different. After amending a bill, the committee has a whole vote on whether to report the bill for consideration by the entire House. If a committee does not pass the bill, it is not reported to the entire House and dies in committee. This process repeats itself for multiple committees, if the bill crosses into different committees' jurisdictions. For example, a spending bill for increased funding of education would be referred to the Appropriations Committee, the Committee on Education and the Workforce, and depending how it is written, possibly additional committees. After this whole process is completed and the bill has survived, it goes to the floor of the House.

When a bill reaches the floor of the House, it is read again in its revised form that the committee has approved. The bill undergoes debate on the floor of the House. Different Representatives speak on behalf or in opposition of the bill in question. Amendments to the bill are offered on the floor and the entire House votes on the bill. Once debate is finished, all amendments are offered and a vote is completed, a final vote must be taken on the bill. If approved, the bill goes to the Senate for consideration.

The process works similarly in the Senate. The bill is introduced by a Senator, read to the entire body, and referred to the appropriate committees for review and consideration. The committee process works in the same way as in the House, and the bill is marked-up and either passed and reported or dies in committee. Once the bill reaches the Senate floor, it faces a different set of challenges. The debate begins in the Senate differently than in the House. In the House, there are rules that limit the amount of time given for debating a bill. This rule does not exist in the Senate. Individual Senators can speak unlimitedly as long as they hold the floor. If a Senator does not like a particular piece of legislation, all he or she has to do is control the floor and he or she can hold up a vote indefinitely. This is known as a filibuster, and if done successfully, will end consideration of the bill in question. In addition, the rules of the Senate allow Senators to offer non-germane amendments to bills under consideration, which is another tactic used to defeat a bill. Non-germane amendments are amendments that do not address the specific topic at hand; they are off the subject. For example, a Senator may attach an amendment that splits the Senate along partisan lines. A Senator will attach a very divisive amendment that forces the other Senators to accept the amendment they oppose in order to pass the bill they support. If the bill survives all of these challenges and a majority of Senators supports it, the bill will pass the Senate.

When the Senate and the House have passed the same bill, does it instantly become law? -not necessarily. When the House and Senate consider the same piece of legislation, they usually pass different versions of the bill after they go though the entire process of consideration. If the two pass different versions of the same bill, they must convene a conference committee to iron out the differences in the two bills. The two sides must come to a settlement on what final provisions the bill should include. After the two sides come to an agreement, the conference version of the bill is sent back to the House and Senate where it is voted on and passed again. Assuming the bills pass again, it again goes to the President for his signature.

The final step for any bill to become a public law is for the President to sign the bill passed by both Houses of Congress. The President has the option to sign the bill and make it law, or he can refuse to sign it and veto the bill. If a bill receives a veto, it returns to Congress where it can still become law if it passes with a 2/3-majority vote in both the House and Senate. If there is not a 2/3 majority in support of the bill, it does not become law.

This is the entire process a bill must endure in order to become law. It is easy to see how a piece of legislation can be altered due to the compromising and altering required in each stage of the legislating process. Bills that attempt to enact sweeping changes to the status quo often contain provisions that create little actual change because all of the compromising that must come to secure passage. Our political system was created to force compromise by creating different institutions that represent different constituencies, thus having different interests. This is the reason that it takes a very long time for drastic change to occur, and it is difficult to enact new laws. As a citizen, you have the right to contact your elected representatives and inquire about the legislative process. By getting involved and voicing your opinion, the process can become more efficient and bring about swift action on legislation. We urge you to take advantage of the political process and make your voice heard.

How to Get Information About Legislation

Many sources will provide information about legislation. These sources vary from the Internet, to individual legislator's offices, news sources, and Congressional Records. Also, there are several ways to access this information, whether it is a telephone call, a letter or via the Internet.

The newest and best source of information on current and past legislation is the Internet. Arguably, the most useful website on the Internet is The Library of Congress's service called Thomas, a database that contains all legislative information that Congress produces. The site contains bill status and summaries for the current and past sessions of Congress, full bill texts, public laws, listing of past major legislation, and roll call voting records. It also contains the text of the Congressional Record allowing the public to view what their representatives are saying about bills under consideration. Additionally, the site has information about committee action. There are committee reports from the 104th Congress and on, links to Committee Homepages for the House and Senate, and links providing hearing schedules, oversight plans, hearing transcripts and committee jurisdictions. The most useful aspect of the site is the search engine that allows individuals to search the current session of Congress for text of bills by bill number or keyword. This allows people to find legislation by subject. If an individual with a disability would like to know if there is any legislation allowing them to get additional health care benefits pending, they can search for it on this site. If there is not, then that same individual can contact their representatives and urge them to propose new legislation. In addition to Thomas, other government websites provide information to the public as well.

The House of Representatives and the Senate both have extensive websites on the Internet. The House website has links that direct you to the schedule of activity on the floor of the House, list up-to-date events as they happen, provide the annual schedule, provide records of roll call votes, contain House Committee hearing schedules and oversight plans and provide access to the Thomas website. Other links include Representatives' Homepages, Committee Homepages, House Leadership Homepages and other House organizations. These pages contain valuable information that is not available from other sources. Individual Representatives' homepages contain summaries of the issues and positions that they view as important. You can read how your representative views issues that directly affect your life. In addition, Representatives' pages many times contain links to past voting records and legislation they have proposed. People are able to judge for themselves that their representative is supporting the issues they feel are important. The House page also contains a search engine that allows you to check the entire website for information on a particular subject. The Senate's homepage structure is very similar.

The Senate's homepage has links to individual Senators' websites, Committees' websites, ongoing legislative activity in the Senate, a calendar of past, today's, and future activity in Committees and on the floor of the chamber. Quick links to committee membership, the Senate Leadership, record of roll call votes and pending nominations are all on the main Senate web page. Additionally, a search engine that allows you to search for bills during the current session is included on the bottom of the page. Senators' homepages have similar content as their counterparts in the House, stating specific positions on issues and listing past voting record and proposed legislation. People are also able to access e-mail addresses, telephone numbers, and addresses of offices to make direct contact with staff members who can provide a direct response to concerns.

While the Internet is an excellent tool for providing information about legislation and representatives' views, it lacks the element of personal contact that comes from calling an office or writing a letter. A very good way of getting a true understanding of a representative's views is to write a letter to their office. By writing a letter, you are expressing your view on an issue and indicating a course of action that should be undertaken. When the office receives a letter, they will send you a return letter with standard language created by a staff member stating their official position. You can request information from a Congressional office, and they will provide anything they have available to you. Another good way of directly contacting your representative is by telephone. Representatives and Senators maintain offices in the areas that they represent. District offices are listed in the telephone book or you may obtain the number from their websites and call directly. If you want to leave a comment, a staff member will take down your concerns and respond with a letter addressing the issues on which you commented. In addition, requests for information about other legislation can be made this way. By contacting a Congressional or District Office, you can get a much more detailed response and information that is not accessible from other outlets.

We hope this guide is an informative explanation of how legislation is created, and the avenues to pursue if you desire to retrieve more information about current legislation. Additionally, we would like to see everyone, especially individuals with disabilities, become more active in monitoring your government's activity. Make your opinions known to you elected officials, and do not be afraid to make your voice heard.

For more information or to locate your representative to share your thoughts and ideas, visit:

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[Updated December 31, 2002]
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