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Understanding how a bill becomes a law

Studies show that many Americans lack basic knowledge of politics. With legislation such as immigration reform or gun control looming on the horizon, it is crucial that the general public is aware of how a bill becomes a law.

When a senator or a representative introduces a bill, the clerk of his or her house gives it a number and title. This is the first reading after which the bill is referred to the proper committee.

The committee may decide if the bill is unwise or unnecessary and table it. Or it may hold hearings to listen to facts and opinions presented by experts and other interested persons. After members of the committee have debated the bill and maybe offered amendments, a vote is taken. If the vote is favorable, the bill is sent back to the floor of the house.

The clerk then reads the bill sentence by sentence in the second reading. Members may then debate the bill and offer amendments. In the House of Representatives, the time for debate is limited by a cloture rule, where the debate is ended by an immediate vote, but there is no such restriction in the Senate for cloture, where 60 votes are required. This makes possible a filibuster, in which one or more opponents hold the floor for hours to defeat the bill by not having a vote.

The third reading is by title only, and the bill is put to a vote, which may be by voice or roll call, depending on the circumstances and parliamentary rules.

The bill then goes to the other house of Congress, where it may be defeated, or passed with or without amendments. If the bill is defeated, it dies. If it is passed with amendments, a joint congressional committee must be appointed by both houses to iron out the differences.

After its final passage by both houses, the bill is sent to the president for approval and signature. Once signed it becomes law. The president may veto the bill and send it back to the house of origin with his reasons. The objections are read and debated, and a roll-call vote is taken. If the bill receives less than a two-thirds vote, it is defeated and dies. But if it receives a two-thirds vote or greater, it is sent to the other house for a vote. If that house also passes it by a two-thirds vote, the president’s veto is overridden, and the bill becomes a law.

This is just a summary, and within each step, there may be other smaller more detailed steps. Understanding how a bill becomes a law helps avoid unfounded assumptions about a bill being a law before it goes through all the necessary steps.

The immigration reform bill known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 is currently in the judiciary committee. It is thus in its initial steps and there is a long journey before it reaches Obama

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