How are Laws Made

This is a web-friendly presentation of the PDF “How Our Laws Are Made” (House Document 110-49); revised and updated by John V. Sullivan, Parliamentarian, United States House of Representatives, July 2007.


This online resource provides a basic outline of the numerous steps of our federal law-making process from the source of an idea for a legislative proposal through its publication as a statute. The legislative process is a matter about which every person should be well informed in order to understand and appreciate the work of Congress. It is hoped that this guide will enable readers to gain a greater understanding of the federal legislative process and its role as one of the foundations of our representative system. One of the most practical safeguards of the American democratic way of life is this legislative process with its emphasis on the protection of the minority, allowing ample opportunity to all sides to be heard and make their views known. The fact that a proposal cannot become a law without consideration and approval by both Houses of Congress is an outstanding virtue of our bicameral legislative system. The open and full discussion provided under the Constitution often results in the notable improvement of a bill by amendment before it becomes law or in the eventual defeat of an inadvisable proposal. As the majority of laws originate in the House of Representatives, this discussion will focus principally on the procedure in that body.


CONGRESSArticle I, Section 1, of 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.The Senate is composed of 100 Members—two from each state, regardless of population or area—elected by the people in accordance with the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. The 17th Amendment changed the former constitutional method under which Senators were chosen by the respective state legislatures. A Senator must be at least 30 years of age, have been a citizen of the United States for nine years, and, when elected, be an inhabitant of the state for which the Senator is chosen. The term of office is six years and one-third of the total membership of the Senate is elected every second year. The terms of both Senators from a particular state are arranged so that they do not terminate at the same time. Of the two Senators from a state serving at the same time the one who was elected first—or if both were elected at the same time, the one elected for a full term—is referred to as the ‘‘senior’’ Senator from that state. The other is referred to as the ‘‘junior’’ Senator. If a Senator dies or resigns during the term, the governor of the state must call a special election unless the state legislature has authorized the governor to appoint a successor until the next election, at which time a successor is elected for the balance of the term. Most of the state legislatures have granted their governors the power of appointment.Each Senator has one vote.As constituted in the 110th Congress, the House of Representatives is composed of 435 Members elected every two years from among the 50 states, apportioned to their total populations. The permanent number of 435 was established by federal law following the Thirteenth Decennial Census in 1910, in accordance with Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution. This number was increased temporarily to 437 for the 87th Congress to provide for one Representative each for Alaska and Hawaii. The Constitution limits the number of representatives to not more than one for every 30,000 of population. Under a former apportionment in one state, a particular Representative represented more than 900,000 constituents, while another in the same state was elected from a district having a population of only 175,000. The Supreme Court has since held unconstitutional a Missouri statute permitting a maximum population variance of 3.1 percent from mathematical equality. The Court ruled in Kirkpatrick v. Preisler, 394 U.S. 526 (1969), that the variances among the districts were not unavoidable and, therefore, were invalid. That decision was an interpretation of the Court’s earlier ruling in Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964), that the Constitution requires that ‘‘as nearly as is practicable one man’s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s.’A law enacted in 1967 abolished all ‘‘at-large’’ elections except in those less populous states entitled to only one Representative. An ‘‘at-large’’ election is one in which a Representative is elected by the voters of the entire state rather than by the voters in a congressional district within the state.A Representative must be at least 25 years of age, have been a citizen of the United States for seven years, and, when elected, be an inhabitant of the state in which the Representative is chosen. Unlike the Senate where a successor may be appointed by a governor when a vacancy occurs during a term, if a Representative dies or resigns during the term, the executive authority of the state must call a special election pursuant to state law for the choosing of a successor to serve for the unexpired portion of the term.Each Representative has one vote.In addition to the Representatives from each of the States, a Resident Commissioner from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and Delegates from the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, and the Virgin Islands are elected pursuant to federal law.


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