The United States Government — and How a Bill Becomes a Law

Defending wild horses and burros, as well as preserving their habitat and the wildlife they live among, requires legislative protection. We present this page as a means to help you better understand how the United States government works, how bills become laws, and in what ways you can play a role in both helping to enact news legislation to preserve wild horses and their wilderness, as well as to enforce existing legislation that does likewise.

BRANCHES OF GOVERNMENT

The United States government is made of three branches: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. These branches form a check and balance system of lawmaking and enforcement in order to ensure that no individual or body of government becomes too powerful.

Executive Branch

  • The President
  • —Elected every 4 years and can be in office a maximum of 8 years

  • The Vice President
  • —Elected with the President
    —Second in line to Presidency

  • 15 Cabinet Members
  • —Secretaries from 15 departments
    —Appointed by the President and approved by majority vote of the Senate
    —Can not be a member of congress or hold other elected office
    —Serve as long as president who appointed them remains in office


Legislative Branch

  • Holds the power to make laws
  • Made of the Congress which is both the Senate and House of Representatives


Judicial Branch

  • Designed to sort through legislation and determine what is constitutional and what is not
  • The Supreme Court
  • —Highest or most powerful court in the country
    —Made of 8 justices and 1 chief justice
    —Justices are appointed by the president and approved by the senate
    —Justices serve for life, unless they step down
    —Hears a select number of cases per year which start in lower courts and focus on a constitutional or federal law

  • Lower Federal Courts
  • —94 judicial districts divided into 12 regional circuits with each having a court of appeal
    —District courts are considered the trial courts of the federal system. They hear all cases involving federal, civil and criminal laws
    —Appeal: apply to a higher court for a reversal of decision from a lower court

THE UNITED STATES CONGRESS

The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States consisting of two chambers: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Congress meets in the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Both senators and representatives are chosen through direct election (though vacancies in the Senate may be filled by a gubernatorial appointment).

The Senate

  • Considered the more powerful body of congress
  • Made of 100 senators or members, 2 are elected from each state by citizens or constituents
  • Serve for 6 years
  • The vice president presides over the senate and is the deciding vote in a tie
  • The majority leader appoints members to lead and serve on committees, there is also a minority member
  • When voting on a bill senators tend to consider how the bill will impact their entire state
  • Powers of the senate
  • —Tries impeachment or removal of a president from office
    —Ratify or approve treaties with other nations by a two-thirds majority vote
    —Approve presidential appointees, including the cabinet, judicial appointees and ambassadors
    —Propose new legislation or law

  • Committee system
  • —The senate sends bills or proposed laws to committees before bringing them before the full chamber
    —These committees oversee many aspects of government
    —Agriculture, armed forces, urban affairs, commerce, energy, environment, finance, homeland security etc.


The House of Representatives

  • 435 members, the number of each states representatives depend on the states population which is determined by the census
  • 2 year term
  • When voting on a bill representatives tend to consider how the bill will impact the people in their district
  • Members represent certain districts of their state, instead of the whole state like a senator
    —The idea is to be more connected with their constituents or citizens
  • Powers of the house
  • —Tasked with raising revenue through taxes
    —Can call for impeachment of president

  • Leaders of the house
  • —Speaker of the house is the leader
    —Applies house rules and refers bills to specific committees
    —Third in line to presidency
    —Majority and minority leaders monitor legislative or law making activity

  • Committee system
  • —Study bills or proposed laws and hold public hearings to gather expert advice and opinions
    —These committees oversee many aspects of government
    —Agriculture, armed forces, urban affairs, commerce, energy, environment, finance, homeland security etc.

HOW A BILL BECOMES A LAW

The process by which a bill becomes law is rarely predictable and can vary significantly from bill to bill. In fact, for many bills, the process will not follow the sequence of congressional stages that are often understood to make up the legislative process. The presentations on specific topics below present a more detailed look at each of the common stages through which a bill may move, but keep in mind that complications and variations abound in practice.

How a Bill Becomes a Law

  • A bill is public or private
  • —Public: Affects the public generally
    —Private: Affects a specific individual or private entity instead of the population

  • The President can sign the bill, which makes it a law or s/he can return it with objections within 10 days. S/he can also veto or reject the bill; this can be overturned with a 2/3 vote in the House and Senate
  • Step 1: Introduction
  • —A member of Congress (House or Senate) introduces the bill for consideration; this person becomes the bill’s sponsor and supporters become co-sponsors
    —A bill is officially introduced when it is assigned a number and printed in the congressional record (H.R. # for House bills and S. # for Senate bills)

  • Step 2: Committee Consideration
  • —All bills are sent to one or more House or Senate committees for review

  • Step 3: Committee Action
  • —This is where bills are either approved or rejected by the committee

  • Step 4: Subcommittee Review
  • —Bills are sent to a subcommittee for further review and public hearing
    —Anyone can provide testimony or comment on the bill; this includes non-members of Congress, like you!

  • Step 5: Mark Up
  • —If the subcommittee decides to continue on with the bill, it must then provide changes or amendments to the original committee
    —The bill can be rejected or die at this point as well

  • Step 6: Committee Action
  • —The full committee reviews the subcommittees comments
    —The committee can hold further hearings and review or vote on the bill

  • Step 7: Publication of Committee Report
  • —A report about the bill is published. The report includes: The purpose, impact on existing laws, budgetary considerations, and new taxes

  • Step 8: Floor Action and Debate
  • —This is when the House and Senate hold debates for and against the bill

  • Step 9: Voting
  • —After debate and any amendments to the bill have been added, the chamber in which the bill originated will vote for or against the bill

  • Step 10: Referred to Other Chamber
  • —Approved bills are now sent to the other chamber of Congress where they will follow the same process to approve or reject the bill

  • Step 11: Conference Committee
  • —This committee is made of members from both the Senate and the House and meets if there are significant changes in a bill approved by the second chamber. The committee works to reconcile the differences. If the committee cannot agree then the bill dies.

  • Step 12: Final Action/Enrollment
  • —Once approved by the House and Senate, the bill becomes enrolled and is presented to the President. The President can either sign a bill into law, veto or reject it, or simply take no action for 10 days while Congress is in session and the bill becomes law; this is known as a “pocket veto.”


Why this system?

  • The founding fathers of The United States clearly express in the Constitution the belief that power should be shared among all branches of government
  • Dividing congress in two calls for a positive vote of both chambers (Senate and House of Representatives) in order make new laws or approve legislation (known as checks and balances)
  • There are minor differences in how the House of Representatives and the Senate review a bill; this is to ensure that all legislation is carefully considered.
How a Bill Becomes a Law in the USA — Video
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How a Bill Becomes a Law — Infographic
How a Bill Becomes a Law
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Click image above to view full size.

THE NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY ACT (NEPA)

NEPA was signed into law in 1970 and establishes national environmental policies and goals for protection, maintenance and enhancement of the environment. The act outlines a specific process that is needed for implementing these goals within federal agencies.

NEPA contains a Declaration of National Environmental Policy that requires the federal government to do what it can to maintain a healthy balance within nature so it can exist in a productive harmony. In this way, agencies must incorporate environmental considerations while planning and making decisions. This is done in a systematic interdisciplinary manor. All federal agencies must prepare detailed statements that assess environmental impacts and alternatives specific to their desired plans. These statements are referred to as environmental impact statements (EIS) and environmental assessments (EA). Generally an EA is done first and an EIS is done if the proposed action significantly affects the environment. Within these statements alternatives to the proposed action must be included. These alternatives must include ways to avoid or minimize adverse impacts or enhance the quality of the environment and are used to inform decisions.

Outline of an EA

  • The need for the proposed action
  • Alternatives to the proposed action
  • The environmental impacts of the proposed action and its alternatives
  • A listing of agencies and persons consulted

Outline of an EIS

  • Discussions of the purpose of and need for the action
  • Alternatives to the proposed action
  • Outline the affected environment
  • Outline the environmental consequences of the proposed action
  • List of agencies and organizations and persons whom the statement is sent

NEPA Process
Categorical exclusion: A proposed action can be categorically excluded or in other words, not require an EA, if it meets certain criteria within the lead agency as having no significant environmental impact
Environmental Assessment (EA): The federal agency involved prepares a written EA to determine if the proposed action would significantly affect the environment. If it would not, the agency issues a finding of no significant impact (FONSI).

Environmental Impact Statement: If the EA determines the proposed action may be significant an EIS is prepared. This is a more detailed evaluation of the proposed action and alternatives. The public and other federal agencies and outside parties may provide input into the preparation of an EIS and then comment on it when it is completed.

Once an EA and or EIS is drafted it is made available for public comment. This lasts 30 days and during that time any member of the public can submit comments to the lead agency. This can be done in a written letter or online.

Agencies Involved
Lead agency: There can be more than one federal agency involved, if so a lead agency is designated to prepare the environmental analysis.

Cooperating agency: Federal, state, tribal or local agency that has expertise in relation to the environmental issue or jurisdiction by law. Has the responsibility to assist the lead agency.

Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ): Agencies may refer to the CEQ in relation to interagency disagreements. The CEQ’s role is to recommend policies that are consistent with the NEPA act.

The Public’s Role
The public can participate in NEPA related hearings or public meetings and or submit comments to the lead agency with suggestions on how to approach the proposed action. The lead agency must take every comment into consideration and other parties during the comment period. Many activist groups draft comments and make them available online for members of the public to sign onto. In this way, if you want to comment on the proposed action you don’t actually have to draft your own response, unless you want to!

For example, before the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) can remove horses or make changes to the range they must conduct an environmental assessment (EA) and or environmental impact statement (EIS). Once that is complete they must make it available to the public and any interested parties. The public then has 30 days to comment on the proposed actions, for or against the proposed actions and or with suggestions for improvement. The BLM must consider all comments before making a final decision on the proposed action.

To participate in public comments for Environmental Assessments should write to the Field Office Manager and ask to be added to the Wild Horse and Burro mailing list. Also ask to be notified of any planning or decisions for the specific HMAs of interest to you. You will need to write to each field office separately.

FOR FURTHER READING

Branches of Government (The United States House of Representatives)

The Legislative Process (The United States House of Representatives)

Legislative Process: How a Senate Bill Becomes a Law — Flow Chart (The United States Senate)

How a Bill Becomes a Law — With Infographic (Kids.gov)

Government 101: How a Bill Becomes Law (Vote Smart)