How Congress Works

The United States Congress is a Bicameral Legislature meaning it consists of two chambers (The House of Representatives and the Senate). The House of Representatives is consists of 435 members with seats divided up among states by population. The Senate consists of two senators from each state regardless of population for a total of 100 members.

In order for new legislature to be passed it must first be introduced by one or more legislators from either chamber of Congress. The Congressman/Congresswoman who introduces the bill is called its Sponsor. This bill may be introduced to both chambers simultaneously or to a just a single chamber but all bills that raise revenue must originate in the House of Representatives.

Once a bill is introduced it can be co-sponsored by any member of the chamber in which it was introduced. To Co-sponsor a bill means that member as well as the constituents they represent support signing the bill into law. Co-sponsorship is important as it demonstrates the amount of support that the bill has; the more co-sponsors the bill has the faster it moves through the legislative process. This is why it is important for constituents to keep in contact with their elected officials as they directly represent their voices in Congress.

The bill is then assigned to its appropriate committee. A congressional committee is a legislative sub-organization that handles specific duties. The House of Representatives has 21 permanent committees while the Senate has 20 committees. Examples of these committees include Intelligence, Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, Finance, Judiciary, and Foreign Relations. These committees are further divided into sub-committees which preside over more specific issues within that committee (for example the House Committee on Foreign Affairs has sub-committees for different regions).

The chair of the subcommittee schedules the bill for a hearing and vote. Once the bill passes the subcommittee it is then voted on by the full committee. When you hear that a bill “died in committee” this means that the bill never passed the committee by a majority vote.

The bill then moves to the floor for a full vote by all the members of that chamber. The Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate schedule bills for voting. The Majority and Minority Whips inform the members of their party when the vote is scheduled as well as try to rally support for or against the bill. The bill must pass by a simple majority vote.

If the bill has not yet been introduced to the other chamber it must go though the same process in that chamber’s appropriate subcommittee and committees as well as a full chamber vote.

If two different versions of the bill pass in each chamber then a conference committee is convened to resolve the differences. This committee usually consists of members of the original committee that considered the bill in each chamber. Once these differences are resolved the newly revised bill must then again be passed by a majority vote in each chamber.

The bill then moves to the President, who must sign the bill into law. If the President refuses to sign the bill into law it is said that the President vetoed the bill. The legislature can override the President’s veto by passing the bill through a 2/3 majority rather than a simple majority.

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