How Does Federal Legislation Become Law?

U.S. Capitol Building - How Does Federal Legislation Become a Law?

A bill is a draft of a proposed law presented for approval to a legislative body. In federal law, that legislative body is the United States Congress — which consists of two chambers: the House of Representatives (435 voting members and six non-voting delegates) and the Senate (100 members).

When a Bill is Introduced to a Chamber of Congress

While bills are often developed in collaboration with constituents and organizations, only a member of Congress or group of members can introduce the bill for consideration by Congress.

A representative or senator who introduces a bill is known as that bill's sponsor, while a group of members who support or worked on the bill are known as co-sponsors.

Committee Reviews Bill

Once introduced to Congress, bills are subject to intense review by a committee (a team of legal and technical experts and other aides who advise legislators on various issues). This review may include further study, debate and expert testimony during public hearings.

The committee reviews the bill line by line and makes necessary changes during a process known as Mark Up.

Committee Reports Bill to Congress

After Mark Up, the committee reviews the modified bill and votes on whether to submit it to Congress or hold it for further review.

If the committee votes to move it on to Congress, the bill is said to have been reported. An account of the bill, including a detailed description, potential budgetary consequences, transcripts of public hearings and notes and recommendations made by committees, is written and published.

Chamber of Congress Debates and Votes on Bill

During the bill's scheduled floor action, debate for and against the bill proceeds before the entire chamber. Once the debate ends, the chamber votes for or against the bill. If the bill is passed by the first chamber of Congress, it will continue to the second chamber where it will undergo a similar process from the point of introduction.

Conference Committee Reconciles Bills

Often the bills passed in each chamber have undergone different revisions. A conference committee is then appointed to work out the differences within the two versions of the bill.

While the bill is in conference, the conferees from the two chambers can rewrite any or all of the provisions of the bill. When they reach a final agreement, a conference report is sent back to each house to be approved.

Enrolled Bill Passed to President

Once both chambers of Congress have approved the reconciled bill, it is enrolled and sent to the president of the United States. From there, the president can either sign the bill into law, veto the bill or leave the bill unsigned for a certain number of days (which, depending on whether Congress is in session, will either automatically pass or deny the bill).

What We Can Do

At several stages in this lengthy and complex process, contact with senators, representatives and committee staff members is critical. For example, after a nutrition and health policy bill is introduced to Congress, it can die in committee (that is, never be acknowledged or followed through) during the committee review stages.

Dietetics professionals can help prevent this by pointing committee members toward important sources of information and expert witnesses.

Another example of strategic contact is calling or writing to elected officials immediately before Congress votes on a bill.

Even after the president signs a bill into law there is opportunity for Academy members, and the public, to share their expertise and influence public policy.

For more information about federal nutrition and health policy bills, visit the Advocacy section of