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How Laws Are Made

Amid the grand marble halls of the Capitol building, members of Congress and their aides are busy crafting the country's policies. It's not a pretty process; as congressional commentators have quipped, laws are like sausages—it's best not to know how they're made. But for iron stomachs, here's a brief tour through Washington's sausage factory.

The Lightbulb Stage

Most laws begin as mere proposals that any of Congress's 535 members may offer in the form of bills. Many are trivial, such as renaming post-office branches. Others are vital, like funding the federal government. Once introduced, all proposals move to congressional committee.

Congressional Committees and Committee Hearings

Thousands of proposals are introduced each year, but almost all die in committee. Congress has nowhere near enough time to entertain each bill, so committee leaders must prioritize. Many bills are dismissed for ideological reasons. For example, liberal proposals to enact tougher gun controls have a smaller chance moving through committees headed by conservative Republicans. Many other bills simply lack urgency. Efforts to rein in fuel costs, for instance, are popular when gas prices are high, but lose steam when costs fall. Lobbying and special-interest money are other major factors influencing the success or failure of individual bills.

More fortunate bills continue to the committee hearing stage, where experts discuss the merits and drawbacks. These hearings—staged in the congressional office buildings adjacent to the Capitol—are usually open to the public; check www.house.gov and www.senate.gov under the "committee" headings for schedules. Committee members then vote on whether to move bills to the chamber floor.

Passing the House, Senate, and White House

A bill approved by committee still faces three formidable tests before becoming a law: it must pass the full House, the full Senate, and usually the White House.

Complicating matters, each legislative chamber has different rules for approving bills. In the House, proposals need only a simple majority, whereas in the Senate a minority can block a bill simply by debating it indefinitely (watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for a dramatic example). Senate leaders can end filibusters, but to do it requires support from 60 out of the 100 senators—a heavy lift if the majority party doesn't have 60 members of its own. President Barack Obama's controversial economic stimulus bill, for example, passed only after Democrats (who then held 58 seats) convinced three Republicans to support the proposal.

A bill passed by both the House and the Senate then proceeds to the White House. The president can either sign it—in which case it becomes law—or veto it, in which case it returns to Congress. Lawmakers can override the veto, but two-thirds of each chamber must support the override to transform a vetoed bill into law. When President George W. Bush twice vetoed a popular children's health care proposal, for example, House supporters couldn't rally the two-thirds majority to override it. The bill became law only when Obama, a supporter, took over the White House.

If all this sounds complicated, it is. Then again, no one poking around a sausage ever said it's easy to decipher the parts.

Updated: 2013-09-17

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