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With U.S. House elections every two years, and some portion of the U.S. Senate up for re-election every two years as well, the legislative branch is the branch closest to “We The People.” Because of the number of U.S. House Members and U.S. Senators, it is far easier for us to have access to Members of Congress than it is to the President or Members of the judicial branch. Therefore, as citizens, it is important we understand the process of how a bill becomes a law, and the powers granted to Congress by the U.S. Constitution.
“All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives.” –Article I, Section 1, United States Constitution
Bills may originate in the United States House of Representatives or Senate, of Congress, except revenue legislation must originate in the House. There are different types of bills, public and private. Measures such as resolutions, depending on the type, are used to continue appropriations or emergency legislation, for example.
Upon introduction in the House or Senate, bills are referred to Committees. Bills may receive committee consideration with hearings, amendments, and if “passed” out of committee may be scheduled for further consideration, with possible further amendments on the House or Senate Floor, by vote. A bill must pass both the House and Senate in the same form before it is allowed to go to the President for possible final approval to become law.
Anyone may draft a bill, or measure. A bill may also be referred to as “legislation” though legislation tends to be used interchangeably as a bill or law. The drafter could be a legislative aide who works with a Member of Congress, an attorney, or someone else. The President of the United States may even send an idea for a bill to Congress. However, the only ones who may introduce a bill for consideration in Congress are Members of Congress. They are the only ones who may “author” a bill even if someone else writes the language of the bill. A bill’s author is also the sponsor of the bill who will guide it through the legislative process. Other Members may “sign on” to the bill in support of its passage, and those Members are considered co-authors or co-sponsors.
While it’s important to understand the legislative process, it’s vital to understand our country’s history, and the circumstances that brought about this genius design, that originates, first and foremost with “We The People.”
After the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 people waited outside Independence Hall to receive the verdict about what their new system of government would be. A woman saw Benjamin Franklin and asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” With no hesitation whatsoever, Franklin responded, “A republic, ma’am, if you can keep it.”
The United States shall guarantee to every state in this Union a republican form of government, and shall protect each of them against invasion, and on application of the legislature, or of the executive (when the legislature cannot be convened), against domestic violence. – Article IV, Section 4, Clause 1, United States Constitution
If you can keep it, Franklin said. Corruption of a constitutional, representative government that runs on the rule of law is easy. Preserving it is hard. Preserving a system the American people say they want to keep, including leadership by representation, is the foremost resolve each Member of Congress must have, each time they file a new bill.
But that is what the process is for. The legislative process vets potential laws as bills so that the process has ample opportunities to air appropriateness or pitfalls well before each measure gets to a vote. Much must happen before any bill gets to the point of a vote. The legislative process is intended to eliminate poor decisions the entire country will regret.
Legislation gets drafted on many different topics for all kinds of reasons. Some pieces are passed to edit or repeal certain laws as needed. Others are major initiatives that make the news and are controversial.
Upwards of 5,000 bills get filed in a legislative session of Congress, and around 500 may pass. And for good reason. The process weeds out. Unfortunately, though, bills do languish in committee without further consideration that are actually better ideas for the country than others that make it through the process.
This is why lawmakers, which is what Members of Congress are, need to understand the United States Constitution to consider whether bills they are filing are constitutional before filing. It is important that they learn America’s history and founding, and how America’s founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, make America succeed as exceptional. It is important that lawmakers understand that America’s Constitution is the law of the land, and that the Preamble to the Constitution is only an introduction, not a precedent of law in which they may cite a constitutional purpose for filing a certain bill. Learning America’s history and founding matters so that lawmakers understand checks and balances, the balance of power that prevents the resting of too much power in one part of government. America’s elected leaders too often forget this. It is our duty, as “We The People,” to be educated ourselves, and remind them.
Amanda Hughes serves as Outreach Director, and 90 Day Study Director, for Constituting America. She is the author of Who Wants to Be Free? Make Sure You Do!, and a story contributor for the anthologies Loving Moments(2017), and Moments with Billy Graham(forthcoming).
The United States House of Representatives – “The Legislative Process”
Congress.gov – “The Legislative Process: Overview”
Congress.gov – “How Our Laws Are Made – Learn About the Legislative Process”