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The Legislative Process


The United States Constitution, provides that: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” Therefore, the primary function of Congress is the making of laws. There are a number of steps in the federal legislative process. Congressional action can take one of four principal forms: bills, joint resolution, concurrent resolution and the simple resolution.


A bill is the form used for most legislation, whether permanent or temporary, general or special, public or private. Bills are presented to the President for action when approved in identical form by both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Joint Resolutions

Joint resolutions may originate either in the House of Representatives or in the Senate. There is little practical difference between a bill and a joint resolution. Both are subject to the same procedure, except for a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution. On approval of such a resolution by two-thirds of both the House and Senate, it is sent directly to the Administrator of General Services for submission to the individual states for ratification. It is not presented to the President for approval. Joint resolutions become law in the same manner as bills.

Concurrent Resolutions

Matters affecting the operations of both the House of Representatives and Senate are usually initiated by means of concurrent resolutions. On approval by both the House of Representatives and Senate, they are signed by the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate. They are not presented to the President for action.

Simple Resolutions

A matter concerning the operation of either the House of Representatives or Senate alone is initiated by a simple resolution. They are not presented to the President for action.

The House and Senate each set their own rules for conducting business but adhere somewhat to the following general procedures. Any member may introduce a bill at any time in their respective chamber when Congress is in session. The signature of the sponsor must appear on the bill, a bill may also have an unlimited number of co-sponsors. The bill is then given a legislative number and assigned to the appropriate committee (it should be noted that the Rules of the Senate, allow a Senator to bypass the committee system and have measures placed directly on the Calendar of Business without having to go through committee action). The bill is then printed.

An important phase of the legislative process is the action taken by committees. It is during committee action that the most intense consideration is given to the proposed measures; this is also the time when the people are given their opportunity to be heard. Each piece of legislation is referred to the committee that has jurisdiction over the area affected by the measure.

Consideration by Committee

Public Hearings and Markup Sessions

Usually the first step in this process is a public hearing, where the committee members hear witnesses representing various viewpoints on the measure. Each committee makes public the date, place and subject of any hearing it conducts.

A transcript of the testimony taken at a hearing is made available for inspection in the committee office, and frequently the complete transcript is printed and distributed by the committee.

After hearings are completed, the bill is considered in a session that is popularly known as the "mark-up" session. Members of the committee study the viewpoints presented in detail. Amendments may be offered to the bill, and the committee members vote to accept or reject these changes.

This process can take place at either the subcommittee level or the full committee level, or at both.

Committee Action

At the conclusion of deliberation, a vote of committee or subcommittee Members is taken to determine what action to take on the measure. It can be reported, with or without amendment, or tabled, which means no further action on it will occur. If the committee has approved extensive amendments, they may decide to report a new bill incorporating all the amendments. This is known as a "clean bill," which will have a new number.

If the committee votes to report a bill, the Committee Report is written. This report describes the purpose and scope of the measure and the reasons for recommended approval.

After committee a committee reports a bill, the measure is ready for consideration by the full House or Senate. After all debate is concluded and amendments decided upon, the measure is ready for 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 some portion or table the measure. If the attempt to recommit fails, a vote on final passage is ordered.

After a measure passes in either the House or Senate, it goes to the other chamber for consideration. A bill must pass both bodies in the same form before it can be presented to the President for signature into law.

If the other chamber changes the language of the measure, it must return to the originating chamber for concurrence or additional changes. This back-and-forth negotiation may occur on the House or Senate floor, with the amendments being accepted or rejected. Often a conference committee will be appointed with both House and Senate members. 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, or at the end of a session, pocket-veto it.

If the President approves the bill, he signs it and usually writes the word "approved" and the date. However, the Constitution requires only that the President sign it. The bill may become law without the President's signature by virtue of the constitutional provision that if the President does not return a bill with objections within 10 days (excluding Sundays) after it has been presented to the President, it become law as if the President had signed it. However, if Congress by their adjournment prevent its return, it does not become law. The latter event is known as a "pocket veto"; that is, the bill does not become law even though the President has not sent his objections to the Congress. The Congress has interpreted the President's ability to pocket veto a bill to be limited to final adjournment "sine die" of a Congress where Congress has finally prevented return by the originating House and not to interim adjournments or first session adjournments where the originating House of Congress through its agents is able to receive a veto message for subsequent reconsideration by that Congress when it reconvenes. The extent of pocket veto authority has not been definitively decided by the courts.

Notice of the signing of a bill by the President is sent by message to the house in which it originated and that house informs the other, although this action is not necessary for the act to be valid. The action is also noted in the Congressional Record. Congress can override a presidential veto by a two-thirds vote of both houses.

A bill becomes law on the date of approval or passage over the President's veto, unless it expressly provides a different effective date.

The State of New York

The power to make laws in New York State is vested with the State Legislature, which is composed of two chambers, the State Senate, and the State Assembly. Each chamber sets its own rules and procedures but the process of enacting legislation is generally the same. Any Senator or Assembly member may introduce a bill in their respective chamber. The bill is then assigned a number and referred to the appropriate “standing committee.”

In committee, one or more of the following actions is possible: hold a public hearing, attached amendments, report the measure out of committee, defeat the measure, hold for consideration and referred to another committee. Should the measure be reported out of committee, it is placed on the Calendar of the respective chamber originating the bill (General Order Calendar for the Senate and the Second Reading Calendar for the Assembly). The measure is then advanced to the Third Reading Calendar for final floor vote. At this stage the State Constitution requires a printed bill to be on members’ desk for three calendar legislative days. This procedure may only be shortened by a “Message of Necessity” for immediate vote from the Governor.

If a bill is passed, it then goes to the other chamber where it is treated as a new bill subject to the same process as any new legislation. If the bill passed unchanged it is returned to the originating house for transmittal to the Governor. If changed, the house of origin must concur before it goes to the Governor.

Once transmitted to the Governor’s office, the Governor has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to act on bills sent 10 days before adjournment of the legislature. If the Governor does not act in that timeframe, the bill automatically becomes law. The Governor has 30 calendar days after the Legislature adjourns to act on other bills; these bills may not become law without the Governor’s approval (pocket veto). A two-thirds vote is required in both houses of the Legislature to override a veto.

The City of New York

The New York City Charter establishes the New York City Council as the legislative branch of city government; the Council is the city’s lawmaking body. Unlike its Federal and State counterparts, the New York City Council is a “one house” legislative body. How a bill becomes law in New York City is subject to the following process:

  • A bill is filed by a member of the Council with the Council’s law clerk;
  • The bill is then introduced at a Stated Meeting and referred to the appropriate committee;
  • A public hearing is held on the proposed legislation;
  • After committee debate and public testimony, the bill may be amended;
  • The committee meets again to vote on the final version of the bill;
  • If passed in committee, the bill is sent to the full Council for more debate and a final vote;
  • If passed by an affirmative of the majority of the Council Members, the bill is then sent to the Mayor, who also holds a public hearing.
  • The Mayor can signed or veto the bill. If the Mayors signs the bill, it immediately becomes a local law and is entered into the City’s Administrative Code. If the Mayor disapproves or vetoes a bill, the bill is sent back to the City Council with the Mayor’s written objections. The Council can override the veto by a two-thirds vote. If the Mayor does not sign or veto a bill within 30 days after receiving it from the Council it is considered approved.

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