August 3, 2021 | Priya Elangovan

For many people, thinking about how a bill becomes a law brings this video to mind:

If you follow advocacy organizations or non-profits like All In Together, you have probably gotten asked to contact your Representative or specific members of Congress to advance a particular piece of legislation. For effective advocacy, it is important to know who to contact and what to ask them to do at each stage of the legislative process. Use this cheat sheet from AIT to understand the legislative process, know who to contact, and answer some common questions about the Congress. While our guide was written with Congress in mind, many state legislatures, and even some city councils follow a very similar process for legislation.

You can track the progress of any piece of federal legislation at govtrack.us. You can also check out the AIT team’s breakdowns of legislation.

How a Bill Becomes a Law

Flowchart describing how a bill becomes a law

Bills can be Introduced in either the House or the Senate. The letter at the front of the bill number will tell you where the bill originated. H for the House, S for the Senate, and J for a joint resolution.

The general process after introduction is:

  • Bill assigned to a committee, where it is marked up and amended
  • The committee votes to advance the bill to a floor debate, where the bill can be debated and amended further
  • Bill is voted on in the originating chamber
  • If it passes it goes to the next chamber to go through the full process again

Legislative Advocacy

Chart describing who to contact in Congress at each stage of the legislative process

Most of the time organizations and advocacy campaigns will ask you to contact your representative to ask them to vote a certain way on a piece of legislation. That ask comes at one of the last stages of the process. If you are engaging at a different stage of the process, use the chart above to guide your advocacy.

FAQ

There are a number of terms and questions that get thrown around in the legislative process. Some of the most common are:

  • Filibuster – The filibuster is a procedure in the Senate that involves locking a bill in permanent debate to prevent it from being voted on. A filibuster can be prevented by invoking “cloture”, a motion that requires the agreement of 60 Senators.
  • How many bills are passed in Congress? The number of bills passed in each session of Congress has gone down over time. In the past five sessions of Congress only 1 to 3% of proposed bills became law.
Frequently asked questions about Congress and the legislative process

Got any other questions about Congress or the legislative process? Send us an email at info@aitogether.org!