The Legislative Process in Congress

By
Donald Wolfensberger

THE LEGISLATIVE PROCESS IN CONGRESS

Remarks of Donald R. Wolfensberger
Woodrow Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar
Before Members and Staff of the Russian Duma
At the International Private-Public Nuclear Waste
Management Roundtable
National Academy of Sciences
Monday, January 25, 1999

My name is Don Wolfensberger. I am currently a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars where I am conducting research, writing, and putting on programs about Congress and the policy process. For 28 years I worked as a staff member in the House of Representatives, most recently as the chief-of-staff of the House Rules Committee. My special expertise is on congressional rules, procedures, processes, and reforms. I am delighted to be here today to try to explain our somewhat convoluted and multi-layered legislative and budget process in the Congress.

In the early part of this century, a Russian named Boris Marshalov, visited the United States and observed the House of Representatives in session. Afterwards, he was asked what he thought. Marshalov responded: "Your Congress is so strange. A man gets up to speak and says nothing. Nobody listens. And when he sits down, everybody disagrees."

I am sure an American or Russian visitor today would come away with similar comments, whether they were visiting the Russian Duma or the United States Congress. Some things don't change. The way in which elected representatives of the people make laws is a very puzzling process to most citizens of their own country, let alone to foreign visitors.

Otto Von Bismark once said that people who like their laws and their sausages should not watch while either are being made. It is a messy process. And yet, in the United States Congress and the Russian Duma, and in most democratic legislatures around the world, we encourage the people to watch how their laws are made by opening the galleries to the public and by televising the debates. You and your American counterparts in Congress think it is important for the people to see what is being done and how it is being done -- even though it is not always a pretty picture. But it is the way free peoples eventaully come together to make laws and govern themselvews.

The very simple explanation of how the legislative process works in the U.S. Congress is illustrated on the second page of your hand-out. A bill is introduced in the House or the Senate by any Member of that body; it is referred to one or more committees and perhaps to several subcommittees. Hearings are conducted on those bills that the committee or subcommittee chairman think are important or that must be enacted.

The bill is then amended by the subcommittee and then the full committee, after which it is reported to the House or Senate calendar. If and when the majority leadership schedules it for consideration, it is debated, amended, and voted on. If it is passed it is sent to the other House where the same process is followed.

When both Houses have passed the bill in different forms, it is usually sent to a House-Senate conference committee to work out the differences between the two Houses. Their report must then be passed in the same form by both Houses before it is sent to the President for his signature or veto. If the President signs it, the bill becomes a law; if he vetoes it, it can only become law if two-thirds of both Houses pass the same bill again and thereby override his veto.

The United States Congress is especially difficult to understand because our legislative process is really a three-layered process - each with all the stages I have just described. We have the budget process, the authorization process, and the appropriations process.

The budget process starts with an annual congressional budget resolution reported by the House or Senate Budget Committees. The budget resolution establishes the overall totals in government spending, revenues, deficit, and public debt for the upcoming fiscal year, as well as laying out how it should be allocated among some 21 functional categories such as defense, agriculture, and energy.

The main purpose of the budget resolution is to provide enforceable guidance to House and Senate committees responsible for individual bills that will affect government spending and revenues during the coming fiscal year. The goal is for all such individual bills, when added up, to produce the budgetary results called for in the budget resolution when the new fiscal year begins.

The authorization process is the policy- making process for various existing and new government programs. There are roughly 15 authorizing committees in each House such as the Armed Services and International Relations committees in the House. Their bills may set overall spending ceilings for various programs, but more importantly they detail how a program should be designed and operated by the Executive Branch to achieve the goals intended by Congress.

The appropriations process involves deciding how much money can actually be spent for each program. Each House has an Appropriations Committee with 13 subcommmittees. Each subcommittee reports one bill each year that funds parts of the government, such as the defense appropriations bill and the foreign operations appropriations bill.

Hopefully, all of these committees will complete their work by October 1st, since that is the beginning of the new fiscal year. But things don't always work out that way, and it is sometimes necessary to have short-term extensions of the government while the work is being completed.

Last year, the House and Senate failed to complete action on 8 of the 13 appropriations bills by October 1st, so they combined those 8 into one huge bill in mid-October and the President signed it. Last year was also the first year in 24 years that the House and Senate did not complete action on a budget resolution. So committees tended to follow the guidance contained in the the budget resolution that passed their particular House.

Let me use the example of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program legislation in 1998 to explain to you how this three-layered process works. On February 2, 1998, President Clinton sent the Congress a total budget request of $1.74 trillion dollars for fiscal year 1999, including a request of 257-billion dollars for defense. Within that defense amount, the President requested $442.4 million for the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.

Congress is under no obligation to provide the amounts of money the President asks for. That is why we have both a presidential budget and a congressional budget.

The House and Senate budget resolutions both called for about $10 billion more in defense spending than the President's budget request, though they both called for less overall spending than the President. The budget resolutions do not go into details as to how the defense money should be spent, though their reports may contain certain programmatic assumptions.

The Cooperative Threat Reduction Program is authorized as part of the defense authorization bill that is reported each year by the House National Security Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee. In 1998, the chairmen of the House and Senate committees introduced their defense authorization bills on April 1st and May 11th, respectively. Hearings had been held in both committees on the President's defense requests before the bills were introduced. The bills were considered in subcommittees, then the full committee, before being reported to their respective Houses.

The House considered the defense authorization bill during two days in late May under very controlled circumstances. The House Rules Committee recommended that only 48 amendments be considered, with strict time limits for each. The House then approved that process. Many of the amendments were combined into single amendments on the floor, so there were only about 16 separate votes on amendments in the House.

In the Senate, on the other hand, the defense authorization bill was considered over 6-days in May and June, and some 141 amendments were considered. The Senate does not limit the number of amendments that can be offered or the time they can be debated. It is a much more free and open debating body and it therefore usually takes it much longer than the House to consider major bills.

The two differing defense authorization bills went to a House Senate conference committee in late July. 18 Senators and 71 House members from 12 committees were named to the conference committee. The omnibus bill contained 33 titles. The Cooperative Threat Reduction program was Title 13 in the final bill that was agreed to by the conference committee two months later on September 22nd.

As you may recall, the President had requested $442.4 million for the CTR in fiscal 1999. The House had passed the defense bill with just $417.4 million dollars for CTR; the Senate bill contained $440.4 million and several restrictions or new requirements for the program. The conference committee agreed to the Senate amount and restrictions. The House approved the conference report on September 24th; the Senate passed it on October 1st, and the President signed the authorization bill into law on October 17th.

In the meantime, the House and Senate were working on the defense appropriations bill. Without going into great detail, I'll simply say that the fiscal year 1999 defense appropriations bill passed the House in June; the Senate in July; the conference report was approved by the two Houses on September 28th and 29th. The defense appropriations bill was signed into law by the President on the same day as the defense authorization bill - October 17th.

The appropriations bill contained the same amount for the Cooperative Threat Reduction program that was approved in the defense authorization bill - $440.4 million, or about $2-million less than the President' request.

In summarizing, let me make three points. First, the legislative process in the United States Congress is very complex and confusing because of the three layers I mentioned to you - the budget process; the authorization process, and the appropriations process. It is also very time-consuming and redundant when you consider that many of the same issues and amendments are debated and voted on each year in bills like the defense authorization and appropriations bills.

Second, there are many different Members in each of two Houses involved in the three processes, and they all have their own ideas and amendments that are offered at various stages -- in subcommittee, full committee, and on the House and Senate floors. Further changes are made in the House-Senate conference committee which, in the case of defense, is closed to the public.

And my third and concluding points is that, unlike a parliamentary system, the President seldom gets exactly what he wants from the Congress. The dominance of the Congress over government spending decisions was intentionally designed by the framers of our Constitution. They wanted the elected representatives of the people in Congress to have power over the Nation's purse strings.

The Constitution therefore specifically gives the Congress the powers to lay and collect taxes, pay debts, and borrow money. Moreover, no money can be taken from the Treasury and spent for any purpose except as provided in appropriations laws originating in and enacted by the Congress.

I thank you for your attention. I am sure in many ways you are even more confused than when I began, so I will be happy to entertain any questions if time permits.

# # #
Hand-out for Presentation on
"THE LEGISLATIVE PROCESS IN CONGRESS"
By Donald R. Wolfensberger
Before Members and Staff of the Russian Duma
At the International Private-Public Nuclear Waste
Management Roundtable
Monday, January 25, 1999

* * * *
INFORMATION ABOUT THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

IN THE 106TH CONGRESS

 

Item Republicans Democrats
Total Members

[Freshmen]

222 (1 vacancy)

[17]

211 (+1 Independent)

[23]

[Women] [ 17] [ 41]
[African Americans] [ 1] [ 38]
[Hispanic-Americans] [ 3] [ 17]
[Asian-Americans] [ 0] [ 5]
Speaker Dennis Hastert (IL)  
Party Floor Leader Dick Armey (TX) Dick Gephardt (MO)
Whip Tom DeLay (TX) Dave Bonior (MI)
Conference/Caucus Chairmen J.C. Watts (OK) Martin Frost (TX)

CHRONOLOGY OF BUDGET AND DEFENSE ACTIONS

SECOND SESSION, 105TH CONGRESS (1998 )
President's Budget
Feb. 2, 1998 - President submits his fiscal year 1999 budget to Congress.
Congressional Budget Resolutions

Senate Actions:

March 18, 1998 - Senate Budget Committee orders budget resolution reported to the Senate (S. Con. Res. 86).

March 29, 1998 - Senate files report on budget resolution (S. Rept. 105-170).

March 27, 1998 - Budget resolution laid before Senate by unanimous consent

March 30, 31, April 1, April 2, 1998 - Budget resolution considered in Senate (54 amendments adopted.

April 2, 1998 - Senate budget resolution (S. Con. Res. 86) adopted, 57-41.

June 22, 1998 - Senate substitutes text of S. Con. Res. 86 into House budget resolution (H. Con. Res. 284).

House Actions:

May 27, 1998 - House Budget Committee reports House budget resolution (H. Con. Res. 284).

June 3, 1998 - House Rules Committee reports procedural rule (H. Res. 455) for consideration of the budget resolution. Special rule allows for two hours of general debate, and the consideration of two amendments, one-hour of debate on each.

June 4, 1998 - Procedural rule adopted by House.

June 4,5, 1998 - H. Con. Res. 284 considered by House.

June 5, 1998 - House adopts H. Con. Res. 284, 216-214.

Conference Actions:

June 15, 1998 - Senate requests conference with the House and appoints 22 conferees. House nevere agrees to Senate request for conference; budget resolution dies.

Defense Authorization Bill

House Actions:

April 1, 1998 - National Security Chairman Floyd Spence introduces H.R. 3616, the defense authorization act for fiscal year 12999; referred to the National Security Committee.

April 13, 1998 - Bill is referred to Military Installations & Facilities Subcommittee.

April 29, 1998 - Subcommittee forwards bill to full committee with amendments.

April 30, 1998 - Referred to Military Readiness Subcommittee.

May 6, 1998 - Full Committee marks-up (amends) bill and orders it reported to House.

May 12, 1998 - Committee files report on bill (H. Rept. 105-532).

May 14, 1998 - Rules Committee reports a special rule (H. Res. 435) for general debate on bill.

May 19, 1998 - Special rule is adopted by House. Rules Committee reports second rule (H. Res. 441), making in order consideration of 48 amendments.

May 20, 21 1998 - Bill considered by House.

May 21, 1998 - Bill passes House 357-60.

Senate Actions:

March 4, 11,12, 18 1998 - Armed Services Committee's Subcommittees hold hearings on President's budget request.

May 7, 1998 - Armed Services Committee orders an original measure reported.

May 11, 19998 - Armed Services Committee reports bill (S. 2057) to Senate without a report.

May 3, 1998 - Bill laid before Senate by unanimous consent.

May 14, June 19, 22, 23, 24, 25 1998 - Bill considered by Senate (over 140 amendments offered).

June 25, 1998 - Bill passes Senate, 88-4.

May 22, 1998 - Senate received H.R. 3616 from House; placed on Senate Legislative Calendar.

June 25, 1998 - House bill laid before Senate by unanimous consent. Senate incorporates text of S. 2057 under H.R. 3616; measure then passes Senate as amended.

Conference Actions:

June 25, 1998 - Senate insists on its amendment, ask a conference with House, and appoints 18 Senators to conference committee.

July 22, 1998 - House agrees to conference with Senate; 71 House Members from 12 committees named to conference committee.

Sept. 21, 1998 - Conferees agree to file conference report; filed in Senate.

Sept. 22, 1998 - Conference report filed in House.

Sept. 24, 1998 - House agrees to conference report, 373-50.

Sept. 30, 1998 - Senate agrees to consider conference report by unanimous consent.

Oct. 1, 1998 - Senate adopts conference report, 96-2

Oct. 6, 1998 - Bill presented to President.

Oct. 17, 1998 - President signs bill into law (Public Law Nol. 105-261).

Defense Appropriations Bill

House Actions:

Feb. 3, 1998 - President's request referred to Appropriations Defense Subcommittee; hearings held.

June 4, 1998 - Subcommittee forwards bill to full committee.

June 17, 1998 - Appropriations Committee marks-up bill and orders reported.

June 22, 1998 - Bill and report filed as original measure (H.R. 4103; H. Rept. 105-591)).

June 23, 1998 - Rules Committee reports procedural rule (H. Res. 484) on bill.

June 24, 1998 - House adopts special rule; considers bill and amendments (2). Bill is passed, 358-61.

Senate Actions:

June 4, 1998 - S. 2132 reported to Senate from Appropriations Committee by Sen. Stevens.

July 30,1998 - Measures considered in Senate (67 amendments adopted). Senate incorporates text of S. 2132 as amended into H.R. 4103, and passes bill, 97-2.

Conference Actions:

July 30, 1998 - Senate asks House for conference; appoints 17 conferees.

Sept. 15, 1998 - House agrees to conference; appoints 17 conferees.

Sept. 25, 1998 - Conference report filed

Sept. 28, 1998 - Conference report adopted by House, 369-43.

Sept. 29, 1998 - Conference report agreed to by Senate, 94-2.

Oct. 17, 1998 - President signs bill into law (Pubic law 105-262)

COMMITTEES OF THE HOUSE & SENATE, 106TH CONGRESS

(1999-2000)

 

HOUSE SENATE
Agriculture Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry
Appropriations Appropriations
Armed Services Armed Services
Banking & Financial Services Banking, Housing, & Urban Affairs
Budget Budget
Commerce Commerce, Science, Transportation
Education & Workforce Labor & Human Resources
Government Reform Governmental Affairs
House Administration Rules & Administration
International Relations Foreign Relations
Judiciary Judiciary
Permanent Select Intelligence Select, Intelligence
Resources Energy & Natural Resources
Rules Special, Aging
Science Indian Affairs
Small Business Small Business
Standard of Official Conduct Select, Ethics
Transportation & Infrastructure Environment & Public Works
Veterans' Affairs Veterans' Affairs
Ways & Means Finance
Select, U.S. National Security & China Special, Y2K Technology Problem

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