January 24, 2011
Student Guide to Lobbying: Part 3
How a bill becomes a law
You’ve already read about contacting your legislators to help pass animal protection laws. Here’s a crash course in how the system works. (Take our free online course just for students, Using the Legislative Process to Speak Up for Animals, to learn even more.)
There are two “sets” of legislatures you can contact: the federal and state level. The federal legislature creates and amends federal laws that affect the entire country. State legislative bodies create and amend state laws that affect only that state.
The Federal Legislature
Almost every U.S. citizen is represented at the federal level of government by one member of the U.S. House of Representatives and two members of the U.S. Senate. This is called a bicameral system.
Each state has two senators to represent its residents, for a total of 100 senators in Congress. There are 435 members of the House of Representatives – each one voting on behalf of a congressional district. The full Congress is made up of these 535 lawmakers.
How a Federal Bill Becomes a Law
Once a bill is drafted and has a sponsor, other legislators can cosponsor the bill. The more cosponsors the bill has, the more consideration it gets. A committee discusses the bill and then may pass it on to a subcommittee. When the bill is being reviewed by committees, it can be changed by adding amendments to it. Both the committee and subcommittee must approve the bill before it goes to the House or Senate for a vote.
The bill then goes on the calendar for debate by the full House or Senate. If, for example, a bill created in the House is similar to one created by the Senate, then the bill is sent to a conference committee consisting of House and Senate members. This committee irons out the differences between the two bills. A bill needs to pass in both the House and the Senate before it is sent to the president to sign or veto.
Most U.S. citizens have one senator and as many as three representatives to represent them in their state legislatures. (Like the federal government, most states follow a bicameral system.) However, Nebraska and two U.S. territories (Guam and the Virgin Islands) have a unicameral system consisting of one governing body.
Each legislative district is represented by a senator. Since state legislators represent fewer citizens then their federal counterparts, there are more opportunities to interact with them.
How a State Bill Becomes a Law
State legislatures differ from state to state, so look up your state legislature’s website for the specifics.
One main difference between federal and state legislatures is that committees hold a public hearing on the bill before the committee members place their votes. This gives a lobbyist a chance to testify for or against a bill and have his or her testimony put in the record.
After the testifying is complete, the committee will vote on the bill. If it passes (with any amendments that were introduced), it is then sent to the full floor for consideration. If the bill passes this level, it is sent to the other side of the legislature (second chamber) and follows the same process (unless your state has a unicameral legislature).
If the second chamber makes an amendment, it must go back to the original chamber the bill originated from for approval. If there is disagreement, the bill is sent to a conference committee. It is then worked on some more. Once the bill is approved by both chambers, it is sent to the governor to be signed into law or vetoed.
Know the lingo!
Not familiar with legislative terms? Check out a glossary of some of the most common words you will run into.
Ready for action?
Find federal and state legislative alerts that need your attention right now.