Making laws for the United States


We need them to set up a peaceful, organized society and protect our rights, without restricting us too much. Everything from how much tax to pay, to protecting rights, to traffic rules need a law.

For the United States, these laws are decided by the Federal government in Washington D.C. (In fact, most states pass laws in a similar way.)

So, let's climb the steps of the Congress of the United States to see how it gets done.

Breaking things up

In creating a government for the United States, the founders saw it was best to divide the business of this new federal government into three groups:

But what manner of Congress was it to be? James Madison, who wrote the original version of the Constitution, wanted a congress where states elected members based on their population. The more people a state has, the more the members it elects to Congress.

Portrait of James Madison, 1816.

The small states objected. Wouldn't this mean their bigger stately brethren would tread over them? In the end, the compromise came by having two houses in Congress.

Let's highlight them one at a time.

The Senate

Here there is equality amongst the states, with two Senators (members of the Senate) being elected from each state.

Here the states are represented. Here is where the state's interests are watched out for, keeping the federal government from taking them over. Furthermore, the age requirement to be a senator is higher than in the House; encouraging older members with more life experience to take part.

One might think it strange that a house of Congress represents the states, but this goes back to the original thinking behind the Constitution. First, of course, the United States was to be a "government of the people, by the people, for the people." But it was also to be a federation, or union of states. Those writing up the rules for the new government were just as afraid their new government would gobble up the states' rights as they were about the rights of the people. So both were to have their say.

The House of Representatives

This is the people's congress, with representation based on population – the more people in a state, the more they elect to the House.

In this way everyone, no matter what state they live in, has the same amount of voting power through their representatives as anyone else. A voter in a very small state like Rhode Island has just as much voice as a voter in a big state like Texas.

In this way, the House of Representatives represents all people throughout the states.

A law is born

So how are laws made for the United States?

The idea is to make wise laws that reflect the interests of the citizens of the nation. This means gathering people from across the land to debate, discuss, and sometimes argue about proposed laws.

The road to make laws must be a long and difficult process.

To begin with, the people across the nation elect representatives they trust to make wise decisions and send them to the Congress. Here a congressman submits a bill, or proposed law, to be considered. These bills are first sent to a committee, or small group, to discuss the idea where it should either be recommended or rejected. Then it is voted upon by all in that particular house of Congress.

But the bill has not finished its journey.

To be approved by Congress, a bill must be accepted by both houses. So a bill that passes in the House must be approved in the Senate, and the other way around. That's a lot of debating, thumping pulpits, and compromising.

The President

But things aren't over yet. It next goes to the President. Here there are two paths the bill can go through to become a law.

If it gets vetoes, and there aren't enough votes in Congress for an override, the bill is plain dead. So it will either be torn up and forgotten, or rewritten and go through the process all over again.

Show me the money

The intended differences between the two houses of Congress can be seen in the rules for how they are to work. For example, it is the Senate, as representatives of the states, that approves all treaties (binding agreements between countries).

In this same light, it is the House of Representatives, the most direct representation of the people, that must propose bills for how the federal government spends money or poses taxes. All other bills for ordinary laws (such as immigration) can begin in either house. But if there is money involved (spending or getting), it starts with the House.

The party line

All of the above is from the viewpoint of original intent. But in the modern world there are other complications, such as political parties. Political parties have but one goal, to get the government to do the things it want to be done. Regardless of whether one agrees with these outcomes or not, that is what they do. These "machines" influence what bills get passed or not, creating a lot more to the already complex political weaving that goes on. Now a days voting on a bill becomes more about voting like the rest of the party members.

Creating a new law is quite a long, difficult process. But what's the alternative? Would we want a single person to be able to make laws on a whim, or maybe because they're in a certain mood? A slow, deliberate act of lawmaking with all the representatives involved is the best way to get good laws.

Cleaning up the town

Laws are no good without a way to enforce them – we need police. In the case of the Federal government there are two groups that do the job, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Marshals. These are the people who find and arrest those who break the laws.

But having the same people who do the arresting and give the punishment is a quick way for a people to lose their rights.

There must be someone else.

That is where the courts come in.

In a court, those arrested are put on trial. The purpose is to punish those breaking the law and protect rights as well.

In fact, we all play a role in helping to create good laws that make our communities better places to live. As long as any nation has a government of the people, by the people and for the people it is the responsibility of the people to elect good people.

Good government, or bad government. The choice is ours.

Fun for the family

Schoolhouse Rock – I'm Just a Bill

Schoolhouse Rock is an excellent resource for learning about all kinds of things. For example, the I'm Just a Bill video goes through how a bill becomes a law.

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