How Laws Are Made and How to Research Them

Learn how laws, regulations, and executive orders are made and how to look them up.

Infographic: How a Bill Becomes a Law

Learn how a bill becomes a law with this easy to read infographic. Use this lesson plan with your class.

How a Bill Becomes a Law infographic summary.

How a Bill Becomes a Law infographic summary. View a larger version of the infographic.

  • 1. Every Law Starts With an Idea

    That idea can come from anyone, even you! Contact your elected officials to share your idea. If they want to try to make a law, they write a bill.

    2. The Bill is Introduced

    When Congress is in session, the Primary Sponsor introduces the bill by placing it in a wooden box called "the hopper.”

    Here, the bill is assigned a legislative number before the Speaker of the House sends it to a committee.

    3. The Bill Goes to Committee

    A small group meets to talk about what they like and don’t like, suggests changes to the bill, and votes to accept or reject the changes, before sending the bill to:

    The House floor for debate or a subcommittee for further research.

    4. Congress Debates and Votes

    Members of the House and Senate can now debate the bill and propose amendments before voting.

    Did you know?

    The House uses an electronic voting system while the Senate typically votes by voice, saying “yay” or “nay.”

    5. Presidential Action

    When the bill reaches the President, he or she can: APPROVE and PASS. The President signs and approves the bill. The bill is law.

    The President can also:

    • Veto: The President rejects the bill and returns it to Congress with the reasons for the veto. Congress can override the veto with 2/3 vote of those present in both the House and the Senate and the bill will become law.
    • Choose No Action: The President can decide to do nothing. If Congress is in session, after 10 days of no answer from the President, the bill then automatically becomes law.
    • Pocket Veto: If Congress adjourns (goes out of session) within the 10 day period after giving the President the bill, the President can choose not to sign it and the bill will not become law.

How Federal Laws Are Made

The U.S. Congress is the legislative branch of the federal government and makes laws for the nation. Congress has two legislative bodies or chambers: the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Anyone elected to either body can propose a new law. A proposal for a new law is called a bill.

Steps in making a law:

  • A bill can be introduced in either chamber of Congress by a Senator or Representative who sponsors it.

  • Once a bill is introduced, it is assigned to a committee whose members will research, discuss, and make changes to the bill.

  • The bill is then put before that chamber to be voted on.

  • If the bill passes one body of Congress, it is then presented to the other body to go through a similar process of research, discussion, changes, and voting.

  • Once both bodies vote to accept a bill, they must work out any differences between the two versions. Then both chambers vote on the same exact bill and, if it passes, they present it to the president.

  • The president then considers the bill. The president can approve the bill and sign it into law or not approve (veto) a bill.

  • If the president chooses to veto a bill, in most cases Congress can vote to override that veto and the bill becomes a law. However, if the president pocket vetoes a bill after Congress has adjourned, the veto cannot be overridden.

Differences between the House and Senate procedures

The Senate and the House have some procedural differences between them. Learn more about each body’s process:

Federal and State Laws, Regulations, and Related Court Decisions

Federal laws generally apply to people living in the United States and its territories.

Congress creates and passes bills. The president then signs those bills into law. Federal courts may review these laws and strike them down if they think they do not agree with the U.S. Constitution.

Find Federal Laws

The United States Code contains the general and permanent federal laws of the United States. It does not include regulations, decisions, or laws issued by:

  • Federal agencies
  • Federal courts  
  • Treaties
  • State and local governments

New public and private laws are published in each edition of the United States Statutes at Large.

Federal Regulations

Regulations are issued by federal agencies, boards, or commissions.  They explain how agencies intend to carry out laws. Regulations are published yearly in The Code of Federal Regulations.

The Rulemaking Process

Federal regulations are created through a process known as rulemaking. If an agency wants to make, change, or delete a rule, the agency will publish the proposal in the Federal Register and seek public comments.

After the agency considers the public's comments and changes the rule if necessary, it publishes the rule’s final version in the Federal Register, along with a description of the comments received, the agency’s response to those comments, and the date the rule goes into effect.

Federal Court Decisions

Although federal courts do not write or pass laws, they may establish individual “rights” under federal law through their interpretations of federal and state laws and the U.S. Constitution. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka held that state laws which segregated public school students by race were unconstitutional, because they violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.  In striking down those state laws, the Supreme Court determined that “separate but equal” educational facilities instilled a sense of inferiority in minority children that undermined their educational opportunities.

Research decisions of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts in the Law Library of Congress.

State Laws and Regulations

State legislatures make the laws in each state. State courts may review these laws and remove them if they think they do not agree with the state's constitution.

Find state laws and regulations with the Law Library of Congress’s guide for each state.

Executive Orders and Other Presidential Actions

The president can issue a variety of documents to direct the work of government officials and agencies, and to inform the public about issues that are important to him or her.

These executive or presidential actions can include:

  • Executive Orders
  • Presidential Memoranda
  • Proclamations

Executive Orders

An Executive order is a presidential action that has the power of a federal law. Presidents might issue Executive orders to create committees or organizations like the Peace Corps. In general, though, Presidents use Executive orders to direct and manage how the federal government operates.

Congress may attempt to overturn an Executive order by passing legislation that opposes the order. However, the president can disapprove, or veto, that bill, and Congress would then need to override that veto to pass the bill. Also, the Supreme Court can declare an Executive order to be unconstitutional.

Presidential Memoranda

Presidential memoranda are similar to Executive orders. The president can use memoranda to direct the actions of the federal government. However, Executive orders must be numbered and published in the Federal Register. Presidential memoranda do not have that requirement.

Presidential Proclamations

Presidential proclamations are written statements that speak directly to the public on matters of policy important to the president. They are primarily symbolic and are usually not enforced as laws on their own.

Find Presidential Actions

The White House posts presidential actions issued by the current president.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) maintains text of Executive orders from former presidents since 1937.

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Last Updated: November 23, 2018