Apr 21, 2023

How a bill (actually) becomes a law

How a bill (actually) becomes a law
President Trump signs a bill on NASA in 2017. Image: NASA 

A complete breakdown of the legislative process.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle. You're reading a subscribers-only Friday edition. Thanks for supporting our work.

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With all the noise in politics today, we sometimes lose sight of what lawmakers actually do: Legislate.

The processes of passing new laws and appropriating government money are the core functions of Congress, yet we spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about the political battles around the day's outrage. Perhaps more to the point, when we do discuss actual policy, we have good reason to believe many Americans are ill-equipped to grasp the basics.

In the 2019 Survey of Civic Knowledge, the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that Americans knew more about constitutional rights and the separation of powers than they did five years before, but the other numbers were far from encouraging; just 39% could name all three branches of government (executive, judicial and legislative). From that datapoint alone, one could assume that far fewer know how those branches work together to bring legislation to life.

So, today, we're going to try to explain exactly how that process works. We'll start with the Civics 101: How a bill becomes law. Then, we'll explain some of the extracurricular activities that go into lawmaking: Lobbying, earmarks, and compromise. And lastly we'll explain how new laws are implemented.

For this piece, Tangle interviewed three legislative assistants in Congress and one staffer who works for a federal agency, all off the record, to add some color about what really happens on Capitol Hill.

With any luck, this piece will give you a much clearer understanding of the inner workings of Congress and the legislative process.

The basics.

There are a number of steps in the process for a bill to become law.