A lot of people don’t know how the American system of government works. Well, most Brits, Australians, Canadians, Mexicans and Germans do, but I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about Americans.

Laws are things called bills that are passed by Congress, and then either signed by the President, or ignored by the President (then the bill becomes a law automatically after 10 days) and not vetoed by the president. If a President vetoes a bill, the bill is sent back to the Congress with a note explaining why it was vetoed. The chamber of congress that first introduced the bill (which is sometimes ambiguous but they work it out) can re-vote to see if they get a two-thirds majortiy, and if they do, the other chamber can try to do the same thing, and if they both manage that, the bill becomes a law.

There are two chambers of congress. One is called “The House of Representatives” and the members are often called “Congressmembers,” “Congressmen,” “Congresswomen” or “Congresspeople.” The other chamber is the Senate and they are called Senators. The members of the House and the members of the Senate collectively from a given state are called the Congressional Delegation. Sometimes the two chambers are called houses. So, as you can see, two of the most important words or their derivatives … House and Congress … are ambiguous and confusing. Which is perfect because that is what Congress is.

The idealized way a Bill becomes a Law is that it is introduced in the House, passes, then is introduced in the Senate, passed there, then goes on to the White House. I’m pretty sure this has not happened in 200 years. What really happens, in simple form, is that a bill is introduced in both the House and Senate at more or less the same time, but they are called different things and they are not exactly the same bill. The bills are considered in one or more committees and altered, and if they get past that process they are debated in the larger chambers, and altered, and if they get past that process they are voted on and if they are passed, both versions of the bill go to a special committee which converts the mess made by the two houses into a single bill. That bill is then quickly voted on before anyone can read it and passed on to the White House.

Here are two videos that will help understand the process. The first is a classic child’s learning video that many people in the United States were subjected to in school. (Not me, we did not have that in the time and place I went to school.) The second is, well, different.

There are many details left out here, such as lobbying and congressional hearings and stuff, as well as procedural voting and so on. There is one other item worth noting: There are exactly 100 Senators. So, there is a reasonable chance that there could be a tie vote. If that happens, the President pro tempore of the Senate, also known as the President of the Senate, is temprorarily replaced by the Vice President of the United States, who is not a member of the Senate at all. Nor of Congress in general. Then, the Vice President settles the tie. (Again, I oversimplify.)

Here’s a nifty cheat cheat that might come in handy if you get elected to the House or something.

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3 thoughts on “How does a bill become a law?

  1. Whyon Earth is it introduced into both Houses at once. What a strange practice.

  2. thanks for saving me the time to search for the School House Rock video! i immediately thought of it when i read the title of your post. now i need to go and buy them for my neices and nephews. i bet Target still has them.

  3. I saw Schoolhouse Rock videos at home on Saturday mornings, not in school. Yes, they were entertaining enough to watch voluntarily.

    This is still how I remember the preamble to the Constitution:

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