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  • Congress 101

    Are you a new arrival on Capitol Hill, or did you just move into your corner office on K Street? Either way, you know that Congress and Washington are governed by a complex set of rules, steeped in tradition and wrapped in language that make this town an awfully confusing place to navigate. 

    That’s why we’ve created “Congress 101”—a handy reference guide you can use to get up to speed on how Washington works. 

    So whether you’re a political rookie or a seasoned pro, bookmark this page for future reference. It can serve as both a crash course or a quick refresher to help you save time and stay smart. 

    Before you get started, here’s our favorite primer on how a bill becomes a law: School House Rock – I’m Just A Bill

    Table of Contents

    Civics 101 – A Special Joe Primer

    We know you learned all about how the government works in 6th grade, but if you’re like us you probably forgot it all in 7th. Here’s a primer to jog the memory. See Citizen Joe’s government page for more discussions of what exactly our government does.

    States and DC

    When we think of the “United States of America,” we tend to forget that our country is exactly that – a federation, or uniting, of states. If you look at the constitution – or listen to states’ rights advocates – you’ll be reminded that the states have a lot of powers that were given them when the country was founded. In fact, according to the constitution the states are the default power; all the powers that are listed in the Constitution (creating a post office, assembling an army, etc.) are powers that are given to the federal government and anything that is not listed in the Constitution is automatically a power of the states. As the nation grew, however, the federal government had a tendency to grow its powers too, so much so that today it sometimes seems like the states don’t play much of a role at all. Yet they still do. Here’s a rough breakdown of who has what power:

    The federal government (again, as listed in the Constitution) has the power to handle:

    • defense
    • trade (with other countries and between states)
    • immigration
    • the post office
    • copyrights and patents
    • coining money
    • collecting taxes to “provide for the general welfare” of the states (you can guess that this one leaves a lot of room for interpretation)
    • and creating all laws that are “necessary and proper” to carry out the powers it was given (another invitation to grow)

    The states technically get everything else, including the power to handle:

    • regulating business and industry (though the feds – through their power to regulate trade between the states – do a lot of this too)
    • crime
    • education
    • health
    • etc.

    If states have so much power, why does it seem like the feds are involved in everything? A few reasons. The federal government’s responsibility to regulate trade between the states give them entree into regulating almost all business that crosses state lines. The “general welfare” clause in the Constitution also opens up the door to the feds raising and giving money for just about anything – and with money, sometimes come strings. After the Civil War, the Constitution was amended to spell out certain rights for citizens and “persons” that limited what states could do (and gave Congress some power to “enforce” them through legislation). Lastly, since the courts have ruled they can, the feds are in the business of enforcing even the pre-Civil War constitutional rights in the states.

    The federal trump. The states are the default power, but the feds always have the trump. If it ever happens that a state has a law that contradicts a federal law, the federal law is the one that has to be followed. Of course there’s not always agreement on what kind of laws the feds can make – when that happens, you usually end up with a states’ rights case in court that may even make it to the Supreme Court.

    The three “branches”

    Three “branches” of government are found both at the federal and state levels:

    • one that makes the laws (the legislature, or Congress in the case of the federal government),
    • one that “executes” laws by enforcing them and creating the programs they order (the executive, or president), and
    • one that settles disputes when there’s disagreement about what the law says (the judiciary, with the Supreme Court at top).

    How Congress makes laws

    If you remember “I’m just a bill sitting on Capitol Hill” from School House Rock, there’s bad news and bad news – the process of making a law isn’t that simple but it is just about that dull. The overview below is largely cribbed from’s 13 step overview.

    Getting a bill started: Anyone can write a bill, but you have to be a member of Congress to introduce it to the House or the Senate. The first step is to give the bill a number; if it starts in the House it gets an H.R. in front of the number, if in the Senate, an S. (Bills are not the only things Congress considers – there are also joint resolutions, concurrent resolutions and simple resolutions, but because they’re not so common, we’ll spare you the details.)

    Surviving committee: The first hurdle is for a bill to get through a committee – without a committee’s approval a bill will die before it gets to the House or Senate floor for a vote (there are few exceptions). There are standing committees on policy areas ranging from Agriculture to Veterans’ Affairs. Bills are first referred to a committee, which can consider the bill straight off or can refer the bill to a subcommittee for study and hearings. You may hear that a bill is “marked up” – that means it meets a subcommittee’s approval and gets handed back to the standing committee. The full committee can go ahead and have further hearings of its own or it can just vote to have the bill go to the full House or Senate, known as “ordering a bill reported.” It is what it sounds like: the bill is put into a report and sent to the chamber where it came from.

    Getting on the Calendar: Bills next get put on the calendar for the House or Senate floor (there is more than one calendar in the House). In both the House and the Senate the all important question of when, or if, a bill ever gets to the floor is largely left up to the speaker (of the House) or the majority leader (of the Senate).

    Debate and Voting: Once on the floor, there are rules on the procedure for debating a bill. Amendments can also be added to a bill before going up for a vote. A bill passes with a simple majority.

    Note on filibusters: Senators can stall a bill to death by simply continuing to debate it and never bringing it to vote, a process called filibustering. A filibuster can be stopped, however, but it needs 60 senators to vote for the debating to come to an end. In this odd way a minority of 41 senators can stop a bill being passed even if 59 senators would approve it. Read more on filibusters…

    Going to the other chamber and ironing out any differences: Once one part of Congress passes a bill it gets referred to the other half and goes through roughly the same process. A bill can be approved as is, in which case it goes straight to the president’s desk. If the second chamber makes minor alterations, it will likely just go back to the first chamber for a second thumbs up. If major changes are made, however, the bill will go to a conference committee to be ironed out. If no agreement can be made, the bill dies. If a compromise is made, both the House and Senate must then approve the conference report.

    The president’s signature – or not: The final step is to get the president’s signature after which a bill becomes law. The bill can also become law if the president doesn’t do a thing for 10 days and Congress is still in session. The president can also choose to “veto” a bill if he doesn’t like it. (If Congress is adjourned and he does nothing, it likewise is effectively vetoed too.) If vetoed, a bill can still become law if both chambers of Congress “override” the veto with 2/3rds of the vote.

    Only one in twenty five bills make it all the way through in the year they’re introduced; for the 96% that don’t get turned into law, it’s either the wastebasket or the recycling bin. (Washington Post)

    Want more details on the process? You can go to town with


    How a Bill becomes a Law–FRC’s role in the process

    This pamphlet details how a bill becomes a law and Family Research Council’s role in the legislative process. It also provides a glimpse into the overall legislative process in Washington, D.C.

    FRC continues to champion your values on Capitol Hill. To offer your support, go to:

    How a Bill becomes a law and FRC's role in the process

      Download PDF (.pdf):


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