Explain the formal process of how a bill becomes a law and define the terms initiative and referendum.

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How a Bill Becomes Law
Initiative, Referendum, Recall

Screen Shot 2017-02-21 at 10.27.35 AM.pngUse this link to see live streaming of sessions of Congress.

How a Bill Becomes Law

Multimedia.pngTo View a C-Span Video on how a Bill become a Law, click HERE

Here is a more complete description of the process from Congressman Alan Lowenthal

A bill goes through the following stages to become law:
(The legislative process is often slow, just as the framers of the Constitution intended. The framers believed that a slow-moving legislature would be less able to infringe on citizens' rights and liberties)

Two types of Bills:
Public Bill: Affect the public as a whole
Private Bill: Grants some relief or benefit to a single person, named in the bill. (Many private bills help foreign nationals obtain visas, but they can cover a variety of other matters.

The several stage process takes place in both houses.
  • 1.Legislation is Introduced.
    • Only a member of congress may introduce a bill.
    • After a bill is introduced, it is assigned a designation number.
    • Only members of the House of Representatives may introduce bills concerning taxes.
  • 2.Committee Action- a political action committee (PAC), organizes and pools funds for a campaign that either supports or denounces the proposed bill.
    • Before committee action, there is referral to committee. What that means is that the leader in the house in which the bill was introduced then refers the bill to an appropriate committee or committees.
    • During the committee action period the committee can also kill the bill by doing nothing at all, this process is known as pigeonholing.
  • 3.Floor Action- the final factor of the legislative process, debatably the most decisive step in determining the fate and compromises of the bill.
    • The two houses differ significantly in how they handle debate:
      • In the House, the Rules Committee has the power to limit debate and the number of amendments offered during debate. A vote in which every member's vote is recorded is called a roll-call vote.
        • In the Senate, members are allowed to speak as much as they wish and to propose as many amendments as they wish. There is no Senate Rules Committee.
  • 4.Conference Committee Action- A conference committee appointed by the House of Representatives and the Senate are elected to resolve disagreements and create compromises on a certain bill.
    • The conference committee is composed of members who were appointed from each house. The members work together to combine the versions of the bill.
    • After compromises are made the two houses must vote on the new bill.
  • 5.Presidential Review- When the president decides to veto or not veto the bill.
    • This is the President's only official legislative duty.
    • If the President vetoes the bill:
      • The bill goes back to Congress
      • Congress can override the veto with a two-thirds vote in both houses. Veto overrides are rare - presidential vetoes usually kill bills.
      • Sometimes the president chooses to do nothing with bills that Congress sends. If the president still has not signed or vetoed the bill after ten days, the bill becomes a law if congress is in session. If Congress has since adjourned, the bill does not become law. This is called a pocket veto.
  • 6.Becomes Law.

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 9.36.32 AM.pngClick here for a musical version of the process of how a bill becomes a law. Courtesy of School House Rock!

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 11.31.08 AM.pngLesson plan for how a bill becomes a law. Includes study material for students and also activities for students to understand the complicated process and how things depend on each stage.

how our laws are made.jpg
Photo Credit: /

game_icon.svg.pngCheck out this game from ICivis called Law Craft. Students can make laws as they play a member of Congress from a state of their choice. They pick an issue that is important to them and then they take it through the law-making process.

Understanding Initiative, Referendum, and Recall

(According to the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL))

See also United States History II.8 on Progressivism and the beginnings of initiatives, referendum and recalls

Initiative is a process that enables citizens to bypass their state legislature by placing proposed statutes and, in some states, constitutional amendments on the ballot.


Referendum is a general term which refers to a measure that appears on the ballot. There are two primary types of referenda: the legislative referendum, whereby the Legislature refers a measure to the voters for their approval, and the popular referendum, a measure that appears on the ballot as a result of a voter petition drive. The popular referendum is similar to the initiative in that both are triggered by petitions, but there are important differences.

Video: Defining Initiative and Referendum with Senator Joe Fain
Video: Schoolhouse Rock--How a Bill Becomes a Law

For more, see Collaborating in the Democratic Teaching section of the wiki

Some states have been criticized for their referendum process. To review an article on this issue, click HERE

In 2003, California Governor Gray Davis was "recalled" in a special (recall) election. To read about the details, click HERE

external image Referendum_71_Results.png

external image Gay_flag.svgThe map to the right shows the passage of Referendum 71 (2009) in Washington State, marking the first time voters in a state extended LGBT domestic partnership rights. (Green approved; Red rejected)

Massachusetts Fair Share Amendment

  • Press Release and Text of the Amendment (August 2015)
    • Proposed constitutional amendment to raise additional revenue for public education and transportation
      • Funds raised by additional taxes on incomes over one million dollars


Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 12.30.24 PM.pngMiddle School Lesson Plan
-Includes Comprehension and Critical Thinking questions as well as in-class activities

primary_sources.PNGPrimary Source Lesson Plan
-Explore a variation of speeches and timelines relating to the Civil Rights Movement that were vital facets to the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act