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Understanding Congress Basics

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The Understanding Congress Basics and the Legislative Process training walks through the details of the congressional policymaking process, how a bill becomes law, and research from the Congressional Management Foundation on life in Congress for both staff members and our representatives and senators.

This training is also part of the Core Volunteer Training series.
TOC and Guide Section
How A Bill Becomes law

The Short Version

A bill is introduced in either the House and/or the Senate. It is assigned to a committee. If the committee doesn’t ever vote on it, the bill dies. The committee can “mark up” the bill by amending it and then voting on it. If the bill passes on a committee vote, it goes to the full House or Senate for a vote. If it passes, then it goes to the other chamber where it goes through the committee process again. If both chambers pass the same bill, it goes to the President. If they pass different versions, it goes to a conference committee and, if the conference committee reaches agreement on a joint version, it goes back to both chambers for a vote. If both chambers pass the conference committee version, it goes to the president. If the president doesn’t approve the bill, Congress can try to override the veto by a two-thirds vote.

The longer version

Introducing a bill

  • Any member of Congress can introduce a bill
  • Other members can join on as sponsors.

Committee Action

  • The bill is referred to the appropriate committee by the Speaker of the House or the presiding officer in the Senate. Most often, the actual referral decision is made by the House or Senate parliamentarian.
  • Bills may be referred to more than one committee, and it may be split so that parts are sent to different committees.
  • The Speaker of the House may set time limits on committees. Failure to act on a bill is equivalent to killing it.
  • A discharge petition signed by a majority of the House membership (218 members) can be used to force the release of a bill from committee.

Committee Steps

  • Comments about the bill’s merits are requested from government agencies.
  • Bill can be assigned to subcommittee by the committee Chairman.
  • Hearings may be held. A hearing is an official meeting or session of a Senate, House, joint, or special committee of Congress, usually open to the public, to obtain information and opinions on proposed legislation.
  • Subcommittees report their findings to the full committee.
  • Finally there is a vote by the full committee – the bill is “ordered to be reported.”
  • A committee will hold a “mark-up” session during which it will make revisions and additions. If substantial amendments are made, the committee can order the introduction of a “clean bill” which will include the proposed amendments. This new bill will have a new number and will be sent to the floor while the old bill is discarded. The chamber must approve, change or reject all committee amendments before conducting a final passage vote.
  • In the House, most bills go to the Rules committee before reaching the floor. The committee adopts the rules that will govern the procedures under which the bill will be considered by the House. A “closed rule” sets strict time limits on debate and forbids the introduction of amendments. These rules can have a major impact on whether the bill passes. It is possible to bypass the rules committee, for example with a two-thirds vote to suspend the rules.

Floor Action

  • Legislation is placed on the Calendar
  • House: Bills are usually placed on the calendars in the order of which they are reported, yet they don’t usually come to floor in this order. Some bills never reach the floor at all. The Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader decide what will reach the floor and when. (Legislation can also be brought to the floor by a discharge petition.)
  • Senate: Legislation is placed on the Legislative Calendar. Scheduling of legislation is the job of the Majority Leader. Bills can be brought to the floor whenever a majority of the Senate chooses.

Rules for debate

  • Debate is done differently in the House and the Senate
  • House: Debate is limited by the rules formulated in the Rules Committee. Debate is guided by the Sponsoring Committee, and time is divided equally between proponents and opponents. The Committee decides how much time to allot to each person. Amendments must be germane to the subject of a bill. No riders are allowed.
  • Senate: Debate is unlimited unless cloture is invoked. Members can speak as long as they want, and amendments need not be germane. Riders are often offered. Entire bills can therefore be offered as amendments to other bills. Unless cloture is invoked, Senators can use a filibuster to defeat a measure by “talking it to death.”


  • The bill is voted on. If passed, it is then sent to the other chamber unless that chamber already has a similar measure under consideration.
  • If either chamber does not pass the bill, then it dies.
  • If the House and Senate pass the same bill, then it is sent to the President. 
  • If the House and Senate pass different bills, they are sent to Conference Committee. Most major legislation goes to a Conference Committee.

Conference Committee

  • Members from each chamber form a conference committee and meet to work out the differences. The committee is usually made up of senior members who are appointed by the presiding officers of the committee that originally dealt with the bill. The representatives from each house work to maintain their version of the bill.
  • If the Conference Committee reaches a compromise, it prepares a written conference report which is submitted to each chamber.
  • The conference report must be approved by both the House and the Senate. Approval means the bill has passed.
  • The bill is then sent to the President for review.

The President

  • A bill becomes law if signed by the President or if not signed within 10 days and Congress is in session.
  • If Congress adjourns before the 10 days and the President has not signed the bill, then it does not become law (“Pocket Veto”).
  • If the President vetoes the bill, it is sent back to Congress with a note listing his/her reasons. Congress can attempt to override the veto by a vote of two-thirds of those present. If the veto of the bill is overridden in both chambers, then it becomes law.
How many members of Congress are there and how many come from each of the 50 states?
  • There are a total of 535 Members of Congress.  One hundred serve in the U.S. Senate, while 435 serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • Since the Senate is made up of 100 Senators, each state sends two Senators to represent them in Washington.
  • In the House of Representatives, a state’s representation is based on its population. States with small populations like North Dakota, Vermont and Delaware send only one representative to Washington, while the most populous state, California, sends 53 representatives to serve in the House.
How many people do congressmen and senators represent?

Members of the House each represent a section of their state, a Congressional District of roughly 700,000 people (after the 2010 Census). Senators represent the entire state.

State of Texas Example:  Two senators represent the entire state, and 36 representatives represent 36 separate districts across the state.

How long do members of Congress’ terms last?
  • House members, referred to as Congressmen/women or Representatives, serve two-year terms and are up for reelection every even year (2016, 2018, etc.).
  • Senators serve six-year terms, and elections to the Senate are staggered over even years so that only about one-third of the Senators are up for reelection in any given even year, essentially making up three classes of Senators.

Senators who are not up for reelection in the next election may demonstrate more flexibility than those who are up for reelection.

How are the two chambers (House and Senate) different?

In the House, the majority party rules. The House conducts most of its important business by passing rules that determine the framework under which a bill will be debated. Since these rules only require a simple majority, the party with the most votes controls the debate. In most cases, rules limit debate so that major bills can be passed during one day of legislative business.

In the Senate, the majority still holds a significant advantage when it comes to scheduling which bills come to the floor, but any single senator can stop legislation from moving forward on his or her own. While debate is limited in the House to the guidelines created by the rule, debate in the Senate does not end until 60 Senators vote for a cloture motion that moves the bill forward for consideration. If the majority does not currently bring to the table 60 votes on its own, it must work with the minority to set the rules for debate on important legislation. Often, this means that major pieces of legislation can be debated for one or two weeks on the Senate floor.

The Major Difference Between the Two Houses



435 members serving two-year terms

100 members serving rotating six-year terms

Speaker’s referral of bills to committee is hard to challenge.

Referral decisions easy to challenge.

Rules Committee powerful; controls time of debate, admissibility of amendments.

Rules Committee weak; few limits on debate or amendments.

Committees almost always consider legislation first.

Committee consideration easily bypassed.

Debate usually limited to one hour.

Unlimited debate unless shortened by unanimous consent or by invoking cloture.

Non-germane, i.e., relevant, amendments may not be introduced from floor.

Non-germane amendments may be introduced (riders).

More hierarchy, members are more highly specialized, focused on tax and revenues.

Less hierarchy, members are generalist, foreign policy emphasis.

More committees and subcommittees. Speaker may create ad hoc committees, committee action more influential than floor action.

Fewer committees and subcommittees, no ad hoc committees and floor action as important as committee action.

What are the Congressional Committees and why are they important?

List of House Committees

List of Senate Committees

  • Committees decide which bills and resolutions move forward to consideration by the House or Senate as a whole. Committee chairmen have enormous influence over this process.
  • The chairs of the committees listed in section 5 are considered to be in a leadership position in Congress.
  • Standing Committees are permanent committees which specialize in the consideration of particular subject areas.
  • Joint Committees include membership from both houses of Congress. Joint committees are usually established with narrow jurisdictions and normally lack authority to report legislation. Chairship of a joint committee usually alternates each Congress between members from the House and Senate.
  • Special or Select Committees are established for a limited time period to perform a particular study or investigation. These committees might be given or denied authority to report legislation.
  • Subcommittees are a subunit of a larger committee. Subcommittees specialize in specific areas and help to divide a committee’s workload. A subcommittee’s recommendations must be approved by the entire committee before being reported to the Senate.
  • A conference committee is a temporary, ad hoc panel composed of House and Senate conferees, which is formed for the purpose of reconciling differences in legislation that has passed both chambers.

Special Note: The House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee have jurisdiction over all taxation, tariffs and other revenue-raising measures.  Bills regarding taxation must originate in the House.

What is the current House Leadership?

House Leadership

To see who currently holds these positions, check out

Speaker of the House

Selected by the majority party.

Majority and Minority Leaders

Leads the majority party.

Majority Whip and Minority Whips

Assists the majority leader, rounds up votes, heads large group of deputy and assistant whips.

House Republican Conference Chair, Vice-Chair, and Secretary

The primary vehicle for communicating the party’s message to Members. The Chairman directs day-to-day operations of the Conference office and staff.

House Democratic Caucus Chair and Vice-Chair

The primary vehicle for communicating the party’s message to Members. The Chairman directs day-to-day operations of the Conference office and staff.

Policy Committee Chairman

Committee that designs, develops and executes policy for the party.

Congressional Committee Chairmen

Coordinates the efforts to elect Democrats and Republicans to the House of Representatives.

Research Committee

On request, provides information about issues.

What is the current Senate Leadership?

Senate Leadership

Head over to to see who currently holds these positions.

President of the Senate: VP of the U.S.

Presides over the Senate, only votes in case of a tie.

President Pro Tempore

Presides over the Senate in the absence of the Vice President.

Majority Leader and Caucus Chair

Leads the party.

Assistant Majority Leader (Whip)

Assists the leader, rounds up votes, heads group of deputy whips.

Minority Leader

Leads the party.

Assistant Minority Leader (Whip)

Assists the leader, rounds up votes.

Chief Deputy Whips

Assists the Assistant Leaders.

Policy Committee Chair and Vice Caucus Chair

Committee responsible for creation of party proposals.

Democratic Caucus/Conference Secretary

Secretary of the Democratic Caucus.

Senate Republican Conference Chair

Informs the media of the opinions and activities of Senate Republicans.

Steering and Outreach Committee Chair

Committee serves as a liaison between Senate Democratic offices, advocacy groups, and intergovernmental organizations.

Senate Campaign Committee

Coordinates the efforts to elect Democrats and Republicans to the United States Senate.

What are the powers of Congress?

The powers of Congress are found in Article 1, section 8, of the Constitution.

  • To levy and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises.
  • To “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for the carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States.”
  • To regulate commerce with foreign nations, among the states, and with Indian tribes.
  • To borrow money.
  • To establish rules for naturalization (that is, becoming a citizen) and bankruptcy.
  • To coin money, set its value, and punish counterfeiting.
  • To fix the standard of weights and measures.
  • To establish a post office and post roads.
  • To issue patents and copyrights to inventors and authors.
  • To create courts inferior to (that is, below) the Supreme Court.
  • To define and punish piracies, felonies on the high seas, and crimes against the law of nations.
  • To declare war.
  • To raise and support an army and navy and make rules for their governance.
  • To provide for a militia (reserving to the states the right to appoint militia officers and to train the militia under congressional rule).
  • To exercise exclusive legislative powers over the seat of government (that is, the District of Columbia) and over places purchased to be federal facilities (forts, arsenals, dockyards, and “other needful buildings.”
  • Additionally Article 1, Section 7, of the Constitution states, “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.”
  • Other major differences in powers: Only the House may initiate articles of impeachment while the Senate tries impeached officials; Senate also votes on major Presidential appointments and ratifies treaties.


What about the representative from U.S. territories?

The office of Delegate was established by ordinance of the Continental Congress (1774–1789) and confirmed by a law of the U.S. Congress. From the beginning of the Republic, the U.S. House of Representatives has admitted Delegates from territories or districts organized by law. There are currently five Delegates, including one from the District of Columbia, and one from each of the following territories:

  • American Samoa
  • Guam
  • The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
  • The Virgin Islands

Congress created the post of Resident Commissioner in 1900 to apply to Puerto Rico.

Delegates and Representatives serve a two-year term, and the Resident Commissioner serves a four-year term. In most respects, Delegates and the Resident Commissioner have most of the authority that Members have. On the House Floor, they can speak, introduce bills, and offer amendments. They can serve on House Committees and possess most of the authority that other Committee members have.

Delegates and the Resident Commissioner also may offer amendments while the House is conducting business as the Committee of the Whole House on the state of the Union. However, unlike Members, they may not vote while the House is conducting business as the Committee of the Whole or vote on the final passage of legislation when the House is meeting.

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Intro & Agenda
(From beginning)

Membership & Terminology

Committees & Chambers

The Legislative Process

What's Life Like in Congress? 

Citizen Advocacy Resources

  • Sara Wanous
  • Morgan McCue

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To skip ahead to a specific section go to the time indicated in parenthesis.

Intro & Agenda
(From beginning)

Membership & Terminology

Committees & Chambers

The Legislative Process

What's Life Like in Congress? 

Citizen Advocacy Resources

  • Sara Wanous
  • Morgan McCue
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