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This chapter is from the book

Legislative Framework, Considerations, and Opportunities

At the introduction of this chapter, we referenced a familiar quotation: "Some people make things happen, some people watch things happen, and some people wonder what happened." This is perhaps no more apparent than in our legislative process, created hundreds of years ago, yet perhaps more vibrant and vital now more than ever before.

As HR professionals, understanding the legislative process helps us to more effectively impact that process. It is both our right and our responsibility to do this. Why? Because the employment-related laws that are passed in our nation directly impact our profession, the organizations for which we work, and the way we perform our jobs (hint: think HIPAA, FMLA, and so forth).

How a Bill Becomes a Law

Some readers may recall the Schoolhouse Rock series from the ‘70s and ‘80s that explained—quite entertainingly—how a bill becomes a law. Although "I’m Just a Bill" may not grace our televisions anymore, the following 13-step process still accurately describes how laws are passed. It’s a process that is worth revisiting now, as we reaffirm our commitment to being strategic and effective business and organizational partners.

Although anyone can draft a bill, only a member of Congress can actually introduce legislation. In so doing, that member of Congress becomes the sponsor of the bill.

There are four basic types of legislation: bills, joint resolutions, concurrent resolutions, and simple resolutions.

The legislative process officially begins when a bill or resolution is given a number (the number is preceded by "H.R." if it is a House bill, and "S." if it is a Senate bill). Once a number is assigned, the following steps will ensue:

  1. Referral to Committee: Bills are usually referred to standing committees in the House or Senate according to carefully delineated rules of procedure.
  2. Committee Action: One of three things can happen to a bill once it reaches a committee: It can be sent to a subcommittee, it can be considered by the committee as a whole, or it can be ignored (at which point the bill dies, or is killed, depending upon one’s point of view).
  3. Subcommittee Review: Bills are often referred to subcommittee for study and hearings. Hearings provide the opportunity to put views of the executive branch, experts, other public officials, supporters, and opponents officially "on the record." Testimony can be in person or submitted in writing.
  4. Mark Up: When the hearings are completed, the subcommittee may meet to "mark up" the bill; that is, make changes and amendments prior to recommending the bill to the full committee. If a subcommittee votes not to report legislation to the full committee, the bill dies.
  5. Committee Action to Report a Bill: After receiving a subcommittee’s report on a bill, the full committee has two choices: It can conduct further study and hearings, or it can vote on the subcommittee’s recommendations and any proposed amendments. The full committee then votes on its recommendation to the House or Senate. This procedure is called "ordering a bill reported."
  6. Publication of a Written Report: After a committee votes to have a bill reported, the chairman instructs staff to prepare a report on the bill. This report describes the intent and scope of the legislation, impact on existing laws and programs, position of the executive branch, and views of dissenting members.
  7. Scheduling Floor Action: After a bill is reported back to the chamber where it originated, it is placed in chronological order on the calendar. In the House, there are several different legislative calendars, and the speaker and majority leader largely determine if, when, and in what order bills come up. In the Senate there is only one legislative calendar.
  8. Debate: When a bill reaches the floor of the House or Senate, there are rules or procedures governing the debate. These rules determine the conditions and amount of time that will be allocated for debate.
  9. Voting: After the debate and the approval of any amendments, the bill is passed or defeated by the members voting.
  10. Referral to Other Chamber: When a bill is passed by the House or the Senate, it is referred to the other chamber, where it usually follows the same process through committee and floor action. This chamber can choose from four courses of action: approve the bill as is, reject the bill, ignore the bill, or change the bill.
  11. Conference Committee Action: If only minor changes are made to a bill by the other chamber, it is common for the legislation to go back to the first chamber for concurrence. However, when the actions of the other chamber significantly alter the bill, a conference committee is formed to reconcile the differences. If the conferees cannot reach agreement, the legislation dies. If agreement is reached, a conference report describing the committee members’ recommendations for changes is prepared. Both the House and the Senate must approve the conference report.
  12. Final Actions: After the House and Senate have approved a bill in identical form, it is sent to the president. At this point, there are two ways in which the legislation can become law:
    • If the president approves of the legislation, he or she signs it and it becomes "the law of the land."
    • If the president takes no action for 10 days while Congress is in session, the legislation automatically becomes law.
    Alternatively, if the president opposes the bill, he or she can veto it; or, if he or she takes no action after the Congress has adjourned its second session, it is considered a "pocket veto" and the legislation dies.
  13. Overriding a Veto: If the president vetoes a bill, Congress may attempt to override the veto. This requires a two-thirds roll call vote of the members who are present in sufficient numbers for a quorum.

Be Heard—Reach Out to Your Elected Officials

There are a variety of ways to reach out to the members of Congress and other elected officials who represent you.

Write (Early, But Not Too Often)

Morris K. Udall (1922–1998), a congressman from Arizona, composed "The Right to Write—Some Suggestions on Writing to Your Representative in Congress." Although Udall retired from Congress in 1991 before the advent of the Internet as a popular method of day-to-day communication, his suggestions are as valid today as they were years ago:

  • Address your correspondence properly (for instance, when writing to a member of Congress, address it to "The Honorable _____ ______").
  • Use the correct physical address.
  • Identify the bill or issue you’re writing about, ideally using the bill number as well as the name by which it is popular known.
  • Send letters in a timely manner, while there is still time for your member of Congress to consider your input.
  • Communicate with those members of Congress who represent you.
  • Be brief, and be legible. Our elected officials are busy, and receive a great deal of communication to sort through.
  • Personal letters may have greater impact than form letters, or petitions.
  • Be specific about why you hold your opinion, and about how the legislation would impact you.
  • When possible, offer suggestions.
  • If you have expertise in a particular area, say so—and then share it.
  • Provide your elected officials with positive, as well as constructive, feedback.

Udall offers some basic "don’ts" as well

  • Don’t threaten.
  • Don’t promise.
  • Don’t engage in name-calling.
  • Speak for yourself, not for others for whom you claim to speak (unless you actually do).
  • Don’t become a "pen pal."
  • Don’t demand commitment—especially before all the facts are in.


Lobbying is the process of reaching out to your elected officials to express your beliefs and opinions with the hope of influencing a governmental body.

Personal Visits

Consider meeting with your elected official, or perhaps with one of his or her staff members.

Stay Informed

Perhaps most importantly, stay up to date on the issues that can potentially impact the HR profession, the organization in which you work, or the ways in which you will carry out the role of HR. Affiliate with organizations—such as SHRM—that are committed to shaping the laws that impact our profession and our workplaces. Sign up to receive "e-alerts"—legislative updates from organizations who want you to stay informed. And don’t stop paying attention after a law is passed—court interpretations can also have a big impact on how you executive your role.

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