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The difference between a House and Senate Bill: How Legislation Becomes Law

Risa A. Levine Speaking at Advocacy Day To be an effective advocate, a rudimentary understanding of our Constitutional structure and role of the different government bodies is mandatory. Leaving out State Government and State laws (which vary widely across the 50 states!), the Federal Government is comprised of three branches: the Executive (the President), the Legislature (there are two "Chambers of Congress" in our Federal Legislature, the House of Representatives, of which there are 435 Members of Congress; and the Senate, of which there are 100 Senators), and the Judiciary (the Supreme Court). The role of the President comes at the very end.

Our focus on Advocacy Day is "Congress", that is, the House and Senate. When you arrive in Washington, D.C. for Advocacy Day, you will discover that the building called "The Capitol" is in the center of a whole area called Capitol Hill. As you face The Capitol, the Senate office buildings are on the right side and the House buildings are on the left side. Thinking about the separate sides, and how House Members and Senators meet in the middle, is helpful in thinking about how "bills" are made into "laws".

Each of the two sides of Congress operates separately as bills are introduced by individual or multiple members of each of the two bodies. The person or persons introducing the bills are called "sponsors". Representatives (also called Congressmen or Congresswomen) introduce "House Bills", designated by the letters "HR" (House Resolution) before the number of the bill (which is assigned when the bill is "dropped" - literally - in a "hopper" in the House) and Senators introduce "Senate Bills" (designated by the letter "S" before the number of the bill). A member of the House of Representatives does not have a say on any Senate bill and a Senator does not have a vote on a House bill. Pay attention to the letter designation before the number to know which one is which!

In addition to the original Sponsor (sometimes there are two sponsors - ideally a Democrat and a Republican so that a bill is truly bi-partisan), Members of Congress and Senators can show their support for bills in their Chamber by becoming a "Co-Sponsor". By doing so, legislators are demonstrating their support for a bill to their colleagues. Further, the number of co-sponsors is one measure of the likelihood of a bill being passed when it is brought to a vote. Finally, when a bill is being reviewed by the relevant Committee (discussed below), having a significant number of co-sponsors incentivizes the Committee to prioritize that bill over less popular bills.

Bills on each side (see? It's helpful to think of the geography of the two sides of Capitol Hill!) move separately through each of the two legislative bodies. After a bill is dropped or introduced, it is assigned for review and discussion to various committees that are part of each side of Congress. In order to be voted on by the entire membership of either the House or Senate, the relevant committees analyze the bill which means that they may hold "hearings" on it (where people testify for or against) or "mark it up" (revise it) or take other action as they see fit for the relevant bill (in order to skip this step, a bill can be "discharged", which requires a 2/3 vote of the membership of the House or Senate, as the case may be).

After a bill moves through and passes out of the Committee (or Committees), it is sent to either the Speaker of the House or the Majority Leader of the Senate who decide whether it will be scheduled for a vote. If the Speaker or Leader schedules a bill for a vote, it is then voted on by the entire body of the Chamber.

Once it is voted on - and passes - the differences between a House and Senate bill (unless there are companion bills - more on that later) are worked out in "conference". This is where Members of the House and Members of the Senate finally meet to synchronize the differences between two bills that may have been passed by the House and the Senate. For example, think about the Budget bills that the two chambers of Congress may send up to Conference - the members of the "Conference Committee" on the Budget will have a lot to discuss! If there is not a bill on a particular matter in each of the House and Senate, once a bill is passed by one Chamber, it is sent to the other for a vote. If it does not get a vote in both Chambers, the bill dies.

To maximize chance of success of a bill passing, the House and Senate may have "companion" bills, when a Member of Congress and a Senator introduce matching bills. This doesn't always work, because the membership of the two bodies varies by party and power, as well as by the internal workings of how each of the bodies works with its members. If the two Chambers have "companion bills", once it is voted on, it is sent directly to the President for signature (or veto), and it does not need to pass through the Conference Committee.

Sometimes, legislation may be proposed by way of an "amendment". An amendment can relate to the substantive subject of the bill to which it attaches, or it can be a method to raise an issue that might otherwise not get attention or get through to a vote on its own. An amendment attached to a big bill is one way that even companion bills may differ, and again, the differences between the two bills and the amendments attached to them are worked out by the Conference Committee. Adding an amendment to a bill that is almost out of committee is a way to expedite passage of the amendment.
Once a bill has been revised in conference, it is sent back to each of the House and Senate floors for approval of the full membership of the respective Chamber. After it has been so approved, it is then sent to the President for his or her signature or veto. If the President signs the bill, it finally becomes a LAW. Whew!

Our purpose on Advocacy Day each year depends on where our issues stand in the process explained above. This year we will ask Members of Congress on both sides to co-sponsor our bills and we will ask the Senate offices to vote for an amendment. To learn more about the bills we support, read the “Issues” page on this website.


Risa A. Levine, Esq. is a Board Member for RESOLVE and previous Advocacy Day Chair.  

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