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How a Bill Becomes a Law (and How You Can Influence That Process)

The process described below is specific to Congress. However, the same general steps apply for bills being considered on the state level (by your state legislators).

Photo of lgeislative bill box

Thousands of bills are drafted in Congress each year, and only a small fraction of them make it through the legislative process to become law. That’s because there are many ways a bill can “die” (i.e., fail to be enacted into law), but it has to complete all the steps below in order to pass and become law.

Throughout the legislative process, there are several things you can do as a stroke advocate to help move stroke-related bills to the next step of the process. The summary below describes the legislative process and how you can participate in it (i.e., be a stroke advocate).

  1. Introduction—A member of Congress has an idea for a new law. He/she works with staff to put that idea on paper. Once completed, the member of Congress submits that document to the clerk of the chamber in which he/she serves (the House or the Senate). The bill is assigned a number and referred to a committee. The member of Congress who introduces a bill is called the bill sponsor.

    What you can do
    Share your ideas for new bills/laws with your members of Congress. Many of the laws in place today were suggested to members of Congress by constituents like you. The Stroke Advocacy Network can help you identify and contact your members of Congress.

  2. Committee Action—Committees are made up of multiple members of Congress from each political party. They meet and debate the bills referred to them. However, because more bills are referred to each committee than they have time to consider, most bills never get past this step in the process. To move forward, a bill must be debated and approved by the majority of committee members. If that doesn’t happen, the bill dies. If it does happen, the bill moves on to the full chamber for consideration.

    What you can do
    Contact your member of Congress and ask him/her to cosponsor bills you support. Adding their name as a cosponsor to a bill is a way that members of Congress can show their support before the bill comes up for a vote. Committees may take the number of cosponsors listed on a bill into consideration when deciding whether to debate and vote on it (instead of another bill). Remember that only representatives can cosponsor House bills (beginning with H.R.) and only senators can cosponsor Senate bills (beginning with S.). You can find out about specific bills pending before Congress, including what committee they’ve been assigned to, here.

  3. Floor Action—This step in the process is what you see on CSPAN. It’s where all members of the chamber (the House or Senate) get to debate and vote on the bill. However, due to time constraints, many bills die at this stage of the process. The bills that are considered must be approved by enough members of Congress (depending on what type of bill it is) to move to the next step. Most bills need a simple majority to pass, which is half the members of that chamber plus one. However, some bills require a larger percentage to pass.

    What you can do
    Ask your member of Congress to speak to the leadership in his/her chamber about scheduling bills you support for floor action. Call your representative about bills pending in the House and your senators about bills pending in the Senate.

  4. Other Chamber—Once a bill makes it through the previous steps in the House or Senate, it must repeat those steps in the other chamber. Both the House and Senate must pass identical versions of the bill. If one chamber makes changes to the bill and passes a different version, the original chamber must agree to those changes before the bill can move on. If the two chambers cannot agree to the same version, the bill dies. If both chambers approve the same version of a bill, it moves on to the President for consideration.

    What you can do
    The same actions from steps 2 and 3 above apply here.

  5. Presidential Action—If the House and Senate pass the same version of a bill, that bill is sent to the President for action. The President has three options—sign, veto or pocket veto.
    • If the President signs the bill, it becomes law. The President can also let a bill become law without his signature when Congress is in session by simply not vetoing it.
    • If the President vetoes the bill, it goes back to Congress.
    • The President can also decline to sign the bill, and if Congress has already adjourned, the bill does not become law. This is called a pocket veto.

    What you can do
    Ask the President to sign bills you support into law. The President is an elected official, just like members of Congress. The only difference is that everyone in the country is his/her constituent. You can send a message to the President by clicking here.

  6. Veto Override—When the President vetoes a bill, it is sent back to Congress. In order to become law, both the House and the Senate must pass the bill by a two-thirds majority, which is called a veto override. If they fail to override the veto, the bill dies. If they succeed, the bill becomes law.

    What you can do
    Ask your members of Congress to vote for or against the veto override (depending on your position on the bill).

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