Understanding the Legislative Process

Very few bills become law. As an example, lawmakers in the 111th Congress introduced more than 10,600 bills, yet only about 300 were actually enacted into law. The process by which a bill becomes a law can be fraught with filibusters, funding challenges and a variety of other legislative hurdles. Here’s a brief summary of the legislative process and how you can play an active role in it:

Ideas for new laws originate from many sources, but only a member of Congress can introduce legislation. Constituents, either as individuals or through organizations such as FRA, may ask or “petition” legislators to introduce a bill. FRA sends an annual legislative agenda to Capitol Hill and frequently meets with lawmakers and their staff to propose legislation that will benefit our members.

Once legislation is introduced, it is referred to the committee or committees with jurisdiction over the subject of the bill. A committee will usually pass the legislation on to a subcommittee, which is smaller and has a more narrow focus than the full committee.

The subcommittee can amend, or “mark-up,” the legislation to make it more specific or address specific concerns. When the mark-up is complete, the final version of the bill is voted on by the subcommittee. If the bill fails to get a majority vote in subcommittee, it dies. If the measure is approved by the subcommittee, it is sent back to the full committee, or “reported out.” The full committee may further amend the measure or vote on it as it was approved by the subcommittee.

During this process, committees and subcommittees conduct hearings to facilitate a full and open discussion about a pending bill. Witnesses with expertise on the subject at hand are invited to testify about the merits and shortcomings of particular bill, either in person or in writing. FRA is regularly invited to share its views during hearings and in written statements presented to the committee or subcommittee holding the hearings. This discussion often results in improvements to a bill or in the eventual defeat of the measure if it’s determined to be an unwise proposal.

If approved at the committee level, the bill is reported out to the House or Senate and is placed on the House or Senate calendar for debate by the full chamber. The House Rules Committee sets the parameters of the debate in that chamber, determining what, if any, floor amendments shall be considered and what length of time will be set aside for floor debate. The Senate has fewer restrictions on floor debate, but any senator can filibuster a bill indefinitely. A filibuster (endless debate on the bill) can be stopped by a cloture vote that requires 60 votes. When debate concludes, the bill is voted on by the full chamber.

Often similar bills move through the House and Senate at the same time. For example, the House and Senate usually have their own versions of the annual the defense authorization legislation. After each chamber approves its respective version of the bill, a conference committee is appointed to reconcile the differences between the two bills.

Both chambers must approve identical legislation before it can be sent to the White House for final approval, so it is the conference committee’s job to find common ground and draft a compromise measure, or “conference report,” that is presented to the House and Senate for a final vote. If approved in both chambers, the bill is sent to the President, where he may do one of the following:

  • Sign the bill into law;
  • Veto the bill and send it back to Congress with suggested changes;
  • Take no action while Congress is in session, in which case the bill will become law in 10 days; or
  • Take no action and let the bill die after Congress has adjourned for the session (pocket veto).

If the President vetoes a bill, Congress may override his decision with a two-thirds vote in both chambers (67 votes in the Senate and 290 votes in the House).

Get Involved

It’s important for shipmates to remember there is no law protecting their military or veterans benefits. What Congress gives, Congress can take away. FRA was established in 1924 to protect military pay and benefits, and our mission hasn’t changed. Today’s FRA gives current and former Sea Service enlisted members a voice on Capitol Hill and, now more than ever, shipmates’ voices need to be heard. Through our combined efforts, FRA and its members have spoken out to halt health care fee increases, increase pay, significantly improve health care and other benefits, and enhance a variety of quality-of-life programs

The legislative process is complex and heavily influenced by grassroots pressure from advocacy groups like FRA and individuals communicating with their respective members of Congress. There is strength in numbers and this combined approach is more likely to persuade members of Congress to see, and act on, our point of view.

FRA encourages all members to be as informed as possible about legislative initiatives that impact them. In addition to the “On & Off the Hill” section of FRA Today, the Association offers several ways shipmates can stay up to date on new bills being introduced and their progress toward enactment.

NewsBytes: NewsBytes is FRA’s weekly e-mail update that provides a snapshot of what’s happening on Capitol Hill. It’s distributed each Friday afternoon to subscribers, or shipmates can listen to a recorded version by calling 1-800-FRA-1924, ext. 112. To subscribe, please e-mail newsbytes@fra.org with “Subscribe” in the subject line and your name and address in the body. If you are a member of FRA, please include your member number as well.

FRA’s Action Center: It’s easy to share your views with your elected officials using FRA’s Action Center at www.fra.org. The website offers pre-written e-mail messages (or users can draft their own) that address specific legislative issues that can be sent to members of Congress or local media outlets with the click of a button. The Action Center also allows users to see which bills their legislators are supporting.

Making Waves: When you use the Action Center to weigh in on a particular issue, FRA works hard to keep you posted on the progress of that initiative. When legislative proposals threaten existing benefits, FRA sends Making Waves to those shipmates via e-mail, inviting them to reiterate their concerns to their elected officials.

It’s vitally important for FRA shipmates to be informed about legislative proposals that affect them and share their opinions on these proposals with their elected officials. Communicating concerns to your representative and senators is at the heart of FRA’s grassroots lobbying efforts and has a direct influence on the Association’s ability to effectively represent shipmates and their families on Capitol Hill.