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Online Guide to the Legislative Process

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The United States Congress

The House of Representatives

  • The House of Representatives is the lower chamber of Congress.
  • Its main distinction from the Senate is that it has sole responsibility for originating appropriations bills - legislation that allocates government money.
  • Representatives can also be called congressmen or congresswomen, depending on their gender.
  • Representatives are selected every two years by their constituents - the people who live in a certain geographical area called a district.
  • Congressional districts are redrawn every ten years.
  • Each district has a state and a number and is named using these terms.
  • For example, if a district is number 10 in California, it is called the 'tenth district of California.'
  • Sometimes representatives include the name of their district in their title.
  • For example, Representative Brady of the eighth district of Texas may write his name 'Representative Brady (TX-8).'
  • There are 435 congressional districts and one representative is elected in each district so there are 435 representatives in the United States Congress.
  • One Representative is selected to serve as the Speaker of the House.
  • This person is chosen from the political party that has the most Members in the House. This is called the majority party.
  • The Speaker has the power to control the proceedings of the House.

The Senate

  • The Senate is the upper chamber of Congress.
  • The Senate is very similar to the House of Representatives. However, the Senate has the special responsibility to approve presidential nominees for the Supreme Court, Cabinet positions, and other key federal officials.
  • Senators are elected every six years by the people of each state.
  • These people are their constituents whom they represent in the Senate.
  • There are 50 states and two senators are elected in each state so there are 100 senators.
  • The Senate
  • Each political party selects a leader for the Senate.
  • The senator from the majority party is called the Senate Majority Leader. This person has the power to schedule legislative priorities for the Senate.
  • The senator from the minority party is called the Senate Minority Leader.

Key Points

  • There are 435 representatives and 100 senators.
  • Every American has one representative and two senators.
  • Americans elect their representative and senators to represent their interests.


  • Both the Members of the House and Senate are divided up into smaller groups called committees.
  • Each committee is responsible for discussing a certain set of issues. Committees are usually named for the type of issue they discuss.
  • For example, the Senate committee that discusses health issues is called the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
  • Most committees are divided into even smaller groups called subcommittees.
  • Each subcommittee is given a topic covered in the committee.
  • For example, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee has a subcommittee called the Subcommittee on Aging which discusses health, education, labor, and pensions issues relating to older Americans.
  • Each committee and subcommittee has one Member of Congress from each political party who are responsible for scheduling discussion in the committee.
  • The Chair is the Member from the majority party.
  • The Ranking Member is the Member from the minority party.

Congressional Offices

  • Each Member of Congress has an office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. and at least one in his/her home district or state.
  • Members of Congress count on the aid of several key people in their offices called staffers.
  • Each staffer has a distinct role in helping the Member of Congress.
  • Some staffers specialize in helping constituents with requests.
  • Others strategize about how to promote legislation.

Each office has a:

  • Chief of Staff who oversees all staffers and works closely with the Member of Congress to plan.
  • Legislative Director who organizes the Member of Congress' legislative priorities.
  • Press Secretary or Communications Director who handles press requests and represents the Member of Congress to the media.

Each office also has several Legislative Assistants who advise the Member of Congress on a set of issues.

  • Legislative Assistants are named for the specific topics they focus on.
  • For example, a Legislative Assistant who deals with health issues is called a 'Health LA.'
  • The letters 'LA' stand for Legislative Assistant.
  • Congress is inactive several times a year. This time is called recess.
  • During a recess Members of Congress often work from one of their district offices in their home states.
  • This is a good opportunity to meet with your Member of Congress.

Key Points

  • Members of Congress are divided into committees to discuss particular issues.
  • Committees are divided into subcommittees to deliberate on specific topics.
  • Members of Congress work out of offices on Capitol Hill and in their home districts.
  • Staffers work with Members of Congress to advise them on particular issue areas.

Legislative Process

Laws are made through a structured process

  • The process begins when a Member of Congress decides that a law is needed on a certain issue.
  • The Member of Congress has his/her ideas written into a document called a bill.

Sponsors & Co-sponsors

  • The Member who originates the bill is called the bill's sponsor.
  • The bill's sponsor may seek support for the bill from other Members of Congress.
  • If other representatives decide to support a House bill or if other senators decide to support a Senate bill, they may choose to co-sponsor it.
  • This means that they sign onto the bill and make their support public.
  • Co-sponsors can choose to support a bill for many reasons.
  • Sometimes another Member of Congress has asked them to sign on.
  • Other times, their constituents have requested that they support the bill.
  • Members of Congress can also decide to support a bill based on their own agendas.
  • The more co-sponsors a bill has, the more likely it is to be successful.

Introduction to Congress

  • The bill's sponsor submits the bill to the chamber of Congress of which he/she is a Member.
  • The bill is given a number.
  • House bills are numbered with the prefix 'H.R.'
  • Senate bills are numbered with the prefix 'S.'

Committees and Subcommittees

  • The leadership in the House or Senate may then direct the bill to the committee or committees which discuss the issues that the bill addresses.
  • The committee may consider the bill or send it to subcommittee for discussion first.
  • Members of the committee or subcommittee may choose to hold a hearing on a bill.
  • During the hearing, experts submit testimony in favor of or in opposition of the bill.
  • Members may also select to 'mark-up' the bill. This process involves discussion of potential changes to the bill.
  • Finally, the bill may be reported. Members of the committee submit a report to the Floor (or entirety) of the House or Senate with their recommendation for action.
  • If no action is taken in committee, the bill will not progress to a Floor vote and is considered 'dead in committee.'

On the Floor

  • The bill will be added to the calendar for further review.
  • If the leadership in the House or Senate allows the bill to come to the Floor for discussion, Members can:
  • debate about the bill
  • approve or reject proposed changes from committee
  • approve or reject new changes that come up during this time
  • Any changes to the bill are written separately and called amendments.
  • Amendments to a bill must be approved with the majority of Members voting in favor of successful amendments.
  • If no action is taken on the Floor to consider the bill, the bill cannot come to a vote and will not succeed.
  • After amendments are considered, the bill may be considered for a vote. A majority of Members must vote in favor of the bill for it to succeed.
  • If the House or Senate approves the bill it is sent to the other chamber for similar consideration.
  • The bill will follow the same process from introduction through committee and to vote.
  • Members can continue to add amendments to the bill during this time.
  • If the bill is passed with additional amendments, it is sent to a group of representatives and senators to iron out the differences between the two versions of the bill.
  • This group is called a conference committee.
  • After the conference committee process, the bill can go to the President for consideration.
  • If the bill is passed without additional amendments, it is sent directly to the President for consideration.

The President reviews the bill. He can do several things.

  • If he approves of the bill:
  • He might chose to sign it into law.
  • He may also choose not to sign it, and if Congress is in session, the bill will become law after 10 days.
  • If he disapproves of the bill:
  • He might chose to veto the bill. The bill will be sent back to either the House or the Senate, depending on where it originated. Congress will then have a chance to override the veto.
  • If there are less than 10 days left before Congress adjourns and the president chooses not to sign the bill, the bill will not become law. Congress will not be able to override this. This is called a 'pocket veto'.
  • If the president vetoes the bill, it is sent back to Congress for another vote.
  • If at least two-thirds of the Members of the originating chamber vote in favor of the bill, it is sent to the other chamber of Congress.
  • If less than two-thirds of those Members vote for the bill, it will not progress further.
  • In the next chamber, if two-thirds of the Members vote for the bill, the President's veto will be overridden and the bill will become law.
  • If the two-thirds vote is not achieved, the bill will die.

Key Points

  • A bill is introduced by a sponsor.
  • Other Members of congress may co-sponsor a bill.
  • Each bill must go through a lengthy process before Congress can vote on it.
  • Every bill must be approved by the President or 2/3 of both Houses of Congress to become law.