Each committee receives many bill referrals over the course of a Congress – far more than the panel is capable of pursuing in any detail. The committee’s chair has the chief agenda-setting authority for the committee; in essence, the chair identifies the bills or issues on which the committee will try to formally act through hearings and/or a markup.
The first formal committee action on a bill or issue might be a hearing, which provides a forum at which committee members and the public can hear about the strengths and weaknesses of a proposal from selected parties – like key executive branch agencies, relevant industries, and groups representing interested citizens. Hearings are also a way to spotlight legislation to colleagues, the public, and the press. At the hearing, invited witnesses provide short oral remarks to the assembled committee, but each witness also submits a longer written version of his or her feedback on the bill. After witnesses’ oral statements, members of the committee take turns asking questions of the witnesses.
While these hearings provide the formal public setting at which feedback is solicited on the policy proposal, committee members and staff engage in additional assessment of the approach through informal briefings and other mechanisms. Also note that a hearing is not required from a procedural standpoint for a bill to receive further action from the committee.
A committee markup is the key formal step a committee ultimately takes for the bill to advance to the floor. Normally, the committee chair chooses the proposal that will be placed before the committee for markup: a referred bill or a new draft text. At this meeting, which is typically open to the public, members of the committee consider possible changes to the proposal by offering and voting on amendments to it, including possibly a complete substitute for its text.
A markup concludes when the committee agrees, by majority vote, to report the bill to the chamber. Committees rarely hold a markup unless the proposal in question is expected to receive majority support on that vote. The committee may vote to report a referred bill, with recommended changes that reflect any amendments adopted during the markup. As an alternative to a referred bill, it may instead report out an original or clean bill that was basically written in the markup process itself from a draft proposal.
Most House and Senate committees also establish subcommittees – subpanels of the full committee where members can further focus on specific elements of the policy area. The extent to which subcommittees play a formal role in policymaking – for example, by holding hearings or marking-up legislation prior to full committee consideration – varies by chamber and by committee tradition and practice. Whatever role a full committee allows its subcommittees to play, subcommittees cannot report legislation to the chamber; only full committees may do so.
Calendars and Scheduling
Once a committee has reported a bill, it is placed on one of the respective chamber’s calendars
. These calendars are essentially a list of bills eligible for floor consideration; however, the bills on the calendars are not guaranteed floor consideration. Many will never be brought up on the floor during the course of a two-year Congress. It is also possible, although less common, for a bill to come directly to the floor without being reported and placed on a calendar.
In the House, majority party leadership decides which bills the House will consider, and in what order. For example, after consulting with committee leaders, majority party leadership may decide to schedule a bill for expedited floor consideration. Alternatively, leadership may ask the Rules Committee to start the process of bringing a specific bill to the floor for more lengthy consideration and possible amendments. These different mechanisms by which the majority party proposes floor consideration of a bill are discussed in more detail in the next section.
In the Senate, majority party leadership does not use the same set of rules as the House to bring bills to the floor. One way the Senate can take up a bill is by agreeing to a motion to proceed to it. Once a Senator – typically the majority leader – makes such a motion that the Senate proceed to a certain bill, the Senate can then normally debate the motion to proceed. If it eventually agrees to the motion by a majority vote, the Senate can then begin consideration of the bill. Â Alternatively, the majority leader can ask unanimous consent that the Senate take up a certain bill. If no one objects to such a request when it is made, then the Senate can immediately begin consideration of the bill in question. (When the leader refrains from making such a request because he has been informed that a Senator would object, it is often said that a Senator has placed a hold on the bill.)
In both chambers, party leaders keep their membership informed of the anticipated floor schedule using various methods – like periodic whip notices or other frequent communications.
The House considers bills under a variety of procedures, each of which differs in the amount of time allotted for debate and the opportunities given to members to propose amendments. Most bills are considered under the suspension of the rules procedure, which limits debate to 40 minutes and does not allow amendments to
|be offered by members on the floor. However, for the House to pass a bill under suspension of the rules requires two-thirds of members voting to agree, so this method is not designed for bills that do not have supermajority support in the House.
Bills not considered on the House floor under suspension of the rules are typically considered instead under terms tailored for each particular bill. The House establishes these parameters on a case-by-case basis through the adoption of a simple House resolution called a special rule. Special rules are reported by the House Rules Committee. This committee, which is often referred to as the traffic cop of the House, is heavily dominated by the majority party, and works closely with House majority party leadership on the main elements of each special rule. Common provisions found in a special rule include selection of the text to be considered, limitations on debate, and limits on the amendments that can be offered on the floor. For instance, sometimes the committee reports a rule that places few restrictions at all on amending, which can result in dozens of amendments being offered on the floor during consideration. In other cases, the special rule will allow only specific pre-determined amendments to be offered, or even preclude floor amendments all together.
Note that House procedures place certain other limitations on the content of amendments, unless the special rule waives these restrictions. For instance, amendments must typically meet certain germaneness standards, meaning that they must be on the precise subject of the legislation being considered.
After the Rules Committee reports a rule for consideration of a bill, the House first considers that special rule itself on the House floor, for approximately one hour. After debate, the House votes on adopting the special rule. Only after its adoption will the House proceed to consider the bill itself, under the terms specified by the special rule.
In this situation, the House typically will consider the bill in a procedural setting called the Committee of the Whole, which allows members an efficient way to consider and vote on amendments. After any amendments are offered and debated, members vote on approval, and each amendment requires a simple majority to be agreed to.
After the amendment process is complete, the Committee of the Whole rises and reports to the full House any recommended amendments, which are then usually approved by the House by voice vote. Just prior to voting on final passage, members typically will briefly debate and then vote on a motion to recommit, which allows the minority party to effectively propose its own amendment. In the House, some votes are taken by voice, but many votes are taken by electronic device, a method that records the individual position of each member who voted.
|To consider a bill on the floor, the Senate first must agree to bring it up – typically by agreeing to a unanimous consent request or by voting to adopt a motion to proceed to the bill, as discussed earlier. Only once the Senate has agreed to consider a bill may Senators propose amendments to it.
Perhaps the modern Senate’s defining feature is the potential difficulty of reaching a final vote on a matter. Most questions that the Senate considers – from a motion to proceed to a bill, to each amendment, to the bill itself – are not subject to any debate limit. Simply put, Senate rules provide no way for a simple numerical majority to cut off or otherwise impose a debate limit and move to a final vote. As a result, Senators can effectively wage (or threaten to wage) a filibuster – in effect, insist on extended debate in order to delay or prevent a final vote on most amendments, bills, or other motions.
In addition, Senate rules provide few options to comprehensively limit the amendments proposed to a bill. Unlike the House, for example, under most circumstances amendments in the Senate need not be germane, and amendments sometimes involve subject matter unrelated to the bill in question. This can lead to a much more wide-ranging and less predictable floor debate than typically occurs in the House.
Senate Rule XXII, often called the cloture rule, does allow a supermajority to limit debate on a bill, amendment, or motion; in addition, in the case of a bill, cloture limits the amendments that can be offered. Supporters of, for instance, a bill under floor consideration can file a cloture motion, signed by at least 16 Senators. Two days of session later, Senators vote on the cloture motion. If three-fifths – usually 60 Senators – agree, then further consideration of the bill is limited to 30 hours, during which only amendments from a pre-specified list of germane ones can be offered. After this final period of consideration, the Senate will take a final vote on the bill. This final vote requires only a simple majority for approval. But because a cloture process is often required to end debate on a bill, then the bill first must garner the support of a three-fifths supermajority. All told, this process of reaching a final vote on a bill can require about a week of Senate floor time to complete.
Overall, these rules and practices governing floor debate and amending in the Senate provide significant leverage to each individual Senator. But rather than relying on the formal rules like cloture, frequently the Senate can more effectively act using unanimous consent agreements. Such an agreement is a structured plan for limiting debate and amending – a plan that can be tailored to each bill that comes to the floor (somewhat akin to a special rule in the House). Through the use of these agreements, the details of which all Senators have agreed upon, the Senate can more effectively process its business while protecting the procedural rights of each of its members.
While many votes are conducted by voice, a recorded vote is required in some cases, and is often requested by Senators in others. Unlike the House, the Senate does not have an electronic voting system; recorded votes are conducted through a call of the roll.
A bill must be agreed to by both chambers in the same form before it can be presented to the President. (Notably, the U.S. Constitution requires that any bill with revenue provisions must be a House bill. With this exception, it does not matter if a bill is passed first by the Senate or if it is passed first by the House.) Once one chamber passes a bill, it isengrossed – that is, prepared in official form – and then sent (or messaged) to the other chamber. In a majority of cases, the second chamber simply agrees to the exact text passed by the first chamber, in which case Congress has then completed its action on the bill.
In some cases, the second chamber instead decides to amend the first chamber’s bill. The second chamber is often proposing, in effect, an alternative version of the bill, which may differ from the bill in minor or substantial ways. In some circumstances, the alternative may even embody a proposal on a different topic. Once the second chamber agrees to this proposed alternative to the bill, it may send the proposal back to the first chamber for possible consideration and a vote. The receiving chamber may also respond with a counterproposal, and so on. This back-and-forth trading of proposals by the House and Senate is called amendment exchange, or sometimes simply ping-pong. For the bill to have a chance of becoming law, one chamber must eventually agree to the proposal that the other chamber sent it.
Sometimes, the resolution of differences between the House and Senate proposals may instead be accomplished through a conference committee. A conference committee is a temporary committee formed in relation to a specific bill; its task is to negotiate a proposal that can be agreed to by both chambers. Each conference committee is made up of members of the House and members of the Senate – called conferees – who are drawn primarily from the committees with jurisdiction over the bill. Through a combination of informal negotiations and formal meetings, the conferees try to hammer out a compromise, drawing on elements of the competing proposals that were adopted by each chamber. If a proposal can garner the support of a majority of the House conferees, and also separately, a majority of the Senate conferees, then the negotiated proposal is embodied in a conference report. This conference report can then be considered in one chamber, and, if agreed to, then considered in the other chamber. Regardless of which chamber goes first, the conference report is considered under sets of procedures used for other business. For example, note that reaching a vote on a conference report in the Senate may require a cloture process. For the bill to move to the next step in becoming law requires both chambers to agree to the conference report without changes.
Once both chambers of Congress have each agreed to the bill, it is enrolled – that is, prepared in its final official form and then presented to the President. Beginning at midnight on the closing of the day of presentment, the President has ten days, excluding Sundays, to sign or veto the bill. If the bill is signed in that ten-day period, it becomes law. If the president declines to either sign or veto it – that is, he does not act on it in any way – then it becomes law without his signature (except when Congress has adjourned under certain circumstances).
If the President vetoes the bill, it is returned to the congressional chamber in which it originated; that chamber may attempt to override the president’s veto, though a successful override vote requires the support of two-thirds of those voting. If the vote is successful, the other chamber then decides whether or not to attempt its own override vote; here, as well, a successful override vote requires two-thirds of voting members to agree. Only if both chambers vote to override does the bill becomes law notwithstanding the President’s veto. A successful override of a presidential veto is rare.
Bills that are ultimately enacted are delivered to the Office of the Federal Register at the National Archives, assigned a public law number, and included in the next edition of the United State Statutes at Large.