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How a bill becomes a law

The U.S. Congress, made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives, creates laws. Bills are introduced, sent to committees, and if approved, voted on by both houses. If passed, the President can sign the bill into law or veto it. Vetoed bills can still become law if Congress overrides the veto with a 2/3 majority vote.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] In other videos we have first started talking about the legislative branch of the United States federal government. We talk about how it has two houses, the Senate that has 100 members, two per state, two times 50, and the House of Representatives that has 435 members. And states have a certain number of representatives depending on their population. We're going to go into a little more depth in this video is exactly how laws get passed, in particular how do bills get passed by one or both of these houses. And if you're looking at the U.S. Capitol building from the lawn, you can assume that the Washington Monument is behind you in this picture right over here, the Senate chamber is on the left side, just like that, and the House of Representatives is on the right side. Well, what does a bill actually look like? So, right over here is the cover of a House bill, and notice some interesting things. The House bill starts with H.R., House of Representatives 1. And so this is the first bill being introduced in this first session of the 108th Congress. And it says, and it's a little hard to read, especially if you're looking at this on a mobile phone, but it says, to amend Title XVIII of the Social Security Act to provide for voluntary program for prescription drug coverage under the Medicare program to modernize the Medicare program and for other purposes. So that's just a very quick summary. And then it talks about who are the representatives that are introducing the bill. So it's Mr. Hastert and then it's in parentheses, it says for himself and then it says, Mr. DeLay, Mr. Blunt, and it keeps going on and on and on. And this was introduced June 25, 2003. And over here, the bottom of where it talks about who is introducing this bill, it says, which was referred jointly to the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means, in each case for consideration of such provisions as fall within the jurisdiction of the committee concerned. So this is the first clue of how bills get started. In theory, anyone could write a bill, in practice, they are written by a member of Congress's aides or aides of a committee, and we're gonna talk more about committees. But they need to be formerly introduced by members of Congress. And you can see here Mr. Hastert, Congressman Hastert is listed first. But it doesn't go straight to a vote by the full House of Representatives. It will be introduced to an appropriate committee, which is a subset of the House of Representatives. In this case it's going to go to both the Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Ways and Means Committee. We can similarly look at a Senate bill, and it has some similarities. And the key thing to appreciate is that a bill could be introduced into the House initially or into the Senate initially. And sometimes you have parallel bills that are essentially trying to do the same thing, going through both chambers at the same time. But right over here, this is a Senate bill, Senate bill 1833, this is in the 115th Congress, to modify the requirements applicable to locatable minerals on public domain land and for other purposes. And then this is September 19th, 2017. It says, Mr. Udall for himself, and then it lists other senators, introduced the following bill which was read twice and referred to the committee on Energy and Natural Resources. And then you start seeing the text of the bill. So once again, whether it initially gets introduced into the Senate or into the House, the first place where it goes is to the appropriate committee. And in general, it will only get voted on by the entire Senate or the entire House if it is approved by a committee. If a majority of the committee actually votes for it. Now what are these committees? So in the House of Representatives, you currently have over 20 committees at the time that I'm making this video. Right now you have 20 standing committees, which means they are continuously in operation, and one select committee, which means it might be created for a special purpose, although some of these select committees tend to last for awhile. Now what I'm gonna list here are some of the most powerful committees in the House of Representatives. You have the House Ways and Means Committee. Now why is this important? What is a Ways and Means? This is the committee that first considers legislation around taxation. So it's the ways and means by which the government can actually fund itself. And so you can imagine this is very, very powerful. Who gets taxed, by how much, how much revenue is actually coming in? What will that do to the economy? And this is a committee that's very specific to the House of Representatives. In general, bills could be introduced to the Senate or the House or both. But if it's something regarding taxation, that has to originate in the House of Representatives and it will go through the House Ways and Means Committee. Another very powerful committee is the Budget Committee. Through tax policy, the House Ways and Means Committee influences how the government gets its revenue, but the Budget Committee decides what is actually the budget of the government. The president can make a proposed budget, but it's the budget committee that actually decides on what budget Congress will actually vote on in the House. Now, once you have a budget, you have to think about how you're gonna spend that money. And that's what the Appropriations Committee is focused on. Which programs get how much funding? So once again, this is a very powerful committee to be on. But perhaps the most powerful committee of all is the Rules Committee. The reason why this is so powerful is that in the House of Representatives, even if a bill is introduced into committee, and even if that committee decides to vote on that bill, and let's say they pass it by a simple majority, it doesn't go straight to the floor of the House of Representatives to a vote. The Rules Committee is actually, you can view them as the traffic cop for the House of Representatives. For the most part, they decide which bills go to the floor of the House, what are the rules by which they are voted on. Are people allowed to make amendments, which are add-ons to that bill? Are people even allowed to debate it? They can even decide whether it's going to be voted on by the House of Representatives acting as the House of Representatives, or whether it's gonna be voted on as the Committee of the Whole, so to speak, which is the entire House of Representatives. The difference between voting for something as a House of Representatives or the Committee of the Whole, in either case, it would happen in the same room is that there's different procedures on how to do it. And so you can imagine there's a lot of strategy depending on which party is in charge on what initially even gets through a committee, and then once it gets through a committee, what's the procedure by which it is voted on or whether it gets voted on at all. Does it have a very public debate, or is there very little debate? Now, if something does pass the House, then that same bill, once it passes the House, would have to be voted on by the Senate. Now, similarly, in the Senate, when a bill is introduced, it goes to committee. And in the Senate currently, there are 16 standing committees and over 20 total committees at the time of this video. And just to get a sense of some of the more powerful committees on the Senate, you have things like the Appropriations Committee, which is a sister committee of the House Appropriations Committee that we talked about before. Once again, they will try to think about well, how could that money be spent? You have the Foreign Relations Committee. One key distinction between the Senate and the House, there's a lot of areas where they both might legislate on or introduce legislation on, but in general, tax bills can only originate in the House, while the Senate is closer to things like foreign relations. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, all treaties would go through them. The Senate Armed Services Committee, it has legislative authority over the military. Now once something gets through any of these committees, then it would go through the Senate floor. And even there you start to appreciate a difference between the House and the Senate. In the Senate, not only do you have a fewer number of senators, they tend to be more generalists and it's easier for something to get to the Senate floor. It's a little bit more collegial. In the House, if the majority party is strongly controlling the Rules Committee, they can very strongly control not just what gets to the floor, but what is debated, how it's debated, if it's debated and what has amendments put on it. And also, the members who serve on these committees, it's a little bit more specialized. Now in either case, once a bill gets through either house, it has to be voted on by the other house. So if a bill gets approved by the Senate, then it will go to the House, and if that same bill is approved by the House with a simple majority, then it will go to the President. Now the President might sign the bill, in which case it would become law, or the President could veto that bill. If the President vetoes the bill, it goes back to both of these houses and to override the veto, each of these houses, they both have to vote with a 2/3 majority, and that happens very seldom. Now you also have a scenario where sometimes very similar bills are going through both houses at the same time. So there's a situation where a similar bill has gone through both houses at the same time, what it goes to is something called a conference committee. And a conference committee is a group of both senators and representatives who will get together and they'll try to reconcile the differences between those two bills. And once they get one bill that reconciles the differences between those two, then they'll go back for a vote to both houses. And if they pass both houses, then once again, it will go to the President who could decide to sign it or veto it, and once again, if it gets vetoed, that veto could get overridden. So the big picture here is we've talked about that policy making process in previous videos where at first you wanna identify an issue and then you wanna do policy formulation. Well, a lot of that is going on in the U.S. Congress. You have congressional aides who are identifying problems, maybe different constituents, maybe lobbyists are saying, hey, can you fix this or can you change the tax code in some way? Then they formulate a policy which is essentially these bills. These bills are essentially a policy formulation, and then those policies have to be adopted. To be adopted, it has to be approved by both houses of Congress and then signed by the President. Or if it's vetoed by the President, that veto has to be overridden by both houses of Congress. And then it's up to the Executive Branch to implement that policy. I'll leave you there. And in future videos we'll talk more about the mechanics of the U.S. Congress.