Overview of Congress

How a Bill Becomes a Law | How Committees Work | The Budget and Appropriations Process

Article 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.

Congress in Brief

  • Currently, we are in the second session of the 113th Congress. 
  • A Congress lasts two years and is divided into two sessions, each a year in length. Therefore, the first session of the 113th Congress began in January 2013, and the second session of the 113th Congress began in January of 2014.
  • Congress is made up of two Houses: The Senate and the House of Representatives.

Senate
The Senate is composed of 100 members, two from each state regardless of population or area.

Senators serve six year terms, and one-third of the Senate is elected every second year.  Senators are split into three classes – I, II, and III.  Class I Senators are up for re-election in 2018; Class II Senators are up for re-election in 2014; and Class III Senators are up for re-election in 2016.

The Senator from each state with the longest tenure is referred to as the “Senior” Senator; the other, the “Junior” Senator.

The two Senators from each state will never be up for re-election simultaneously; therefore each state’s Senators are in different classes.

The President of the Senate is the Vice President of the United States. Vice President Biden is the President of the Senate, and his primary role will be to cast the deciding vote in the event of a tie (50-50) vote on legislation.

Senators deal with all issues affecting our nation, and particularly those issues their constituents care about. However, Senators often play more integral roles on the issues that come before the Committees on which they sit.

For a complete list of Senators, links to individual Senators’ websites, and more, go to www.senate.gov.

House of Representatives
The House of Representatives is composed of 435 Members, plus five non-voting delegates representing American Samoa (Eni F.H. Faleomavaega-D); District of Columbia (Eleanor Holmes Norton-D); Guam (Madeleine Z. Bordallo-D); Northern Mariana Islands (Gregorio Kiliili Camacho Sablan-D); and Virgin Islands (Donna M. Christensen-D); and one Resident Commissioner, elected every four years, representing Puerto Rico (Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia-D).

All members and delegates are elected every two years (with the exception of the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico).

The number of Representatives is determined by a state’s population. Therefore, more populated states such as California and New York have 53 and 27 Representatives respectively, while less populated states such as Wyoming and Alaska each have one at-large Representative, the minimum number allowed by the Constitution.

Congressional districts are redrawn after every national census or every 10 years.

For a complete list of Representatives, links to individual Representatives’ websites, and more, go to www.house.gov. There is also a very useful FAQ at www.clerk.house.gov.


How a Bill Becomes a Law
(Taken from Congress at Your Fingertips, edited by Capitol Advantage) 

To those who aren’t familiar with federal policy, the drawing up of legislation and the creation of laws may seem complicated when, in fact, the process is relatively straightforward. Anyone may draft a bill; however, only members of Congress may introduce legislation, and by doing so become sponsor(s). There are four basic types of legislation: bills, joint resolutions, concurrent resolutions, and simple resolutions. The official legislative process begins when a bill or resolution is numbered (H.R. signifies a House bill and S. a Senate bill), referred to a committee, and printed by the Government Printing Office.

Step 1. Referral to Committee: Bills are usually referred to standing committees in the House or Senate according to carefully delineated rules of procedure.

Step 2. Committee Action: When a bill reaches a committee it is placed on the committee’s calendar. A bill can be referred to a subcommittee or considered by the committee as a whole. It is at this point that a bill is examined carefully and its chances for passage are determined. If the committee does not act on a bill, it is the equivalent of “killing” it.

Step 3. Subcommittee Review: Often, bills are referred to a subcommittee for study and hearings. Hearings provide the opportunity to put on the record the views of the executive branch, experts, other public officials, supporters and opponents. Testimony can be in person or submitted in writing.

Step 4. Mark Up: When the hearings are completed, the subcommittee may meet to “mark up” the bill, that is, to make changes and add amendments prior to recommending the bill to the full committee. If a subcommittee votes not to report legislation to the full committee, the bill dies.

Step 5. Committee Action to Report a Bill: After receiving a subcommittee’s report on a bill, the full committee can conduct further study and hearings, or it can vote on the subcommittee’s recommendations and any proposed amendments. The full committee then votes on its recommendation to the House or Senate. This procedure is called “ordering a bill reported.”

Step 6. Publication of a Written Report: After a committee votes to have a bill reported, the chairman instructs staff to prepare a report on the bill. This report describes the intent and scope of the legislation, impact on existing laws and programs, position of the executive branch, and views of dissenting members.

Step 7. Scheduling Floor Action: After a bill is reported back to the chamber where it originated, it is placed in chronological order on the calendar. In the House there are several different legislative calendars, and the Speaker and Majority Leader largely determine if, when and in what order bills come up. In the Senate there is only one legislative calendar that is controlled by the party in control and the Majority Leader.

Step 8. Debate: When a bill reaches the floor of the House or Senate, there are rules and procedures governing the debate. These rules determine the conditions and amount of time allocated for debate.

Step 9. Voting: After the debate and the approval of any amendments, the bill is passed or defeated by the members voting.

Step 10. Referral to Other Chamber: When a bill is passed by the House or the Senate, it is referred to the other chamber where it usually follows the same route through committee and floor action. This chamber may approve the bill as received, reject it, ignore it, or change it.

Step 11. Conference Committee Action: If only minor changes are made to a bill by the other chamber, it is common for the legislation to go back to the first chamber for concurrence. However, when actions of the other chamber significantly alter the bill, a conference committee is formed to reconcile the differences. If the conferees are unable to reach agreement, the legislation dies. If agreement is reached, a conference report is prepared describing the committee members’ recommendations for changes. Both the House and the Senate must approve of the conference report.

Step 12. Final Actions: After a bill has been approved by the House and Senate in identical form, it is sent to the President. If the President approves of the legislation, he signs it and it becomes law. Or, the President can take no action for ten days, while Congress is in session, and it automatically becomes law. If the President opposes the bill he can veto it. A “pocket veto” occurs if the President takes no action and the Congress has adjourned its second session. As with a regular veto, a pocket veto kills the legislation.

Step 13. Overriding a Veto: If the President vetoes a bill, Congress may attempt to “override the veto.” This requires a two-thirds roll call vote of the members who are present in sufficient numbers in both Houses for a quorum.


How Committees Work

Perhaps the most important phase of the legislative process is the action by committees. The committees consider every possible aspect of a proposed measure and provide a forum for the public to be heard. A tremendous volume of work, often overlooked by the public, is done by the Members in this phase. There are, at present, 20 standing committees in the House and 16 in the Senate as well as several select committees in both Houses. In addition, there are four standing joint committees of the two Houses—Joint Economic Committee, Joint Committee on the Library, Joint Committee on Printing and Joint Committee on Taxation—that have oversight responsibilities but no legislative jurisdiction.

Each committee’s jurisdiction is divided into categories under the rules of the House and the Senate. All measures affecting a particular area of the law are referred to the committee with jurisdiction over the particular subject matter. The Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader may refer an introduced bill to multiple committees for consideration of those provisions of the bill within the jurisdiction of each committee concerned. The Speaker or Majority Leader must designate a primary committee of jurisdiction on bills referred to multiple committees.

A member usually seeks selection to the committee that has jurisdiction over a field in which the Member is most qualified and interested. Many Members are nationally recognized experts in the specialty of their particular committee or subcommittee. For example, the Committee on the Judiciary is traditionally composed almost entirely of lawyers. Membership on the various committees is divided between the two major political parties. The proportion of Republicans and Democrats on a particular committee depends upon who holds the majority in that particular House of Congress. In the current session of Congress, the Democrats hold a majority in the Senate, where they hold a majority of committee seats, and the Republicans hold a majority in the House, where they hold more committee seats. The one exception to this rule is the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, whose membership is always divided equally among the two major political parties.

Members of the House of Representatives may serve only on two committees and four subcommittees, with limited exceptions.

?Except as otherwise noted, Senators may serve on no more than three committees, and five subcommittees (with the exception of the Committee on Appropriations). For more specific information, go to http://www.senate.gov/legislative/common/briefing/Standing_Rules_Senate.htm#24.

Members rank in seniority according to the date of their appointment to the full committee. Most often, it is the most senior member of the majority with the most continuous service to the committee that is elected chairman.

Committee reports are written by the committee staff to describe the purpose and scope of a particular bill and the reasons for its recommended approval. Committee reports generally contain a section-by-section analysis explaining precisely what each section is intended to accomplish.


The Budget and Appropriations Process

Every year, Congress considers 12 “regular” appropriations bills plus additional “emergency” or “supplemental” appropriations bills. These measures provide funding for numerous activities, including education. These measures also fund general government operations such as the administration of federal agencies. Congress has developed certain rules and practices for the consideration of appropriations measures, referred to as the congressional appropriations process (CRS Report: The Congressional Appropriations Process: An Introduction (2004)).  

Budget Resolution
The budget request officially starts the appropriations process and is the President’s suggested level of funding for every federal government program. For more information on the budget request, visit http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/.

The real business begins when the House and Senate work on their respective budget resolutions. While this process involves arcane budget-speak and lots of talk of big-picture deficit and spending issues, the budget resolution is of critical importance to even the smallest of federal programs.

The vast majority of programs receive federal funding from the discretionary pot. It is important to keep in mind that while discretionary spending is a source of federal funding, it is not the largest area of federal spending––mandatory spending is.

At this point, it is best to think of discretionary spending as dividing a pie. Every federal program is fighting for as large of a piece of pie as it can get. The budget resolution determines how big the pie is––meaning the larger the number, the easier it is for programs to receive funding or, conversely, the smaller the pie, the tougher the fight for funding.

Who decides how big the pie is? The process starts in the House and Senate Budget Committees. Through deliberations, controlled by the majority party, the Budget Committees decide how big the pie is. Amendments are considered in committee and on the House and Senate floor, and finally, the pie is set. From there, it is up to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to divide the pie accordingly, funding programs such as the National Writing Project.

Therefore, if the pie isn’t big enough, there is very little appropriators can do to prevent programs from being eliminated, let alone provide increases. This is how the budget resolution impacts programs at the Department of Education and all other federal agencies.

Appropriations
Traditionally, once the budget resolution is completed, the House and Senate then set to work crafting appropriations legislation within the parameters set by the budget resolution. The appropriation enables an agency or department to 1) make spending commitments, and 2) spend money. Except in the case of entitlements, an appropriation is the key determinant of how much will be spent on a program.

Congress must pass appropriations bills to provide money to carry out government programs for every fiscal year. Appropriations bills are usually divided up by type of program and agency into twelve separate bills: Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration; Commerce, Justice, Science; Defense; District of Columbia; Energy and Water Development; Financial Services and General Government; Homeland Security; Interior and Environment; Labor, Health and Human Services and Education; Legislative Branch; Military Construction and Veterans’ Affairs; State and Foreign Operations; and Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

The 12 subcommittees within the House and Senate Appropriations Committees draft legislation to allocate funds to government agencies within their jurisdictions. These subcommittees are responsible for reviewing the President’s budget request, hearing testimony from government officials and the public, and drafting the spending plans for the coming fiscal year.

Their work is passed on to the full House or Senate Appropriations Committees, which may review and modify the bills and forward them to the floor for consideration. Once the bills are passed by each chamber, they move to Conference where the conferees must agree on appropriations levels that fall within the range established by the already-passed House and Senate versions. The resulting Conference reports must be agreed to by both the House and the Senate before the bill can be sent to the President’s desk for his or her signature.

Authorizations
Authorizing legislation establishes the funding limits for programs. You will often hear members of Congress, their staff, lobbyists, and advocates say “funding for the program was authorized at $100 million, but only $12 million was appropriated.” An authorized funding level does not indicate the amount of actual funds.