The Process of Adding and Removing Public Policies in the United States

When a lobbyist starts working with a client, one of their first actions is to temper expectations so that they understand the changes they seek are unlikely to happen right away. Anyone who has ever dealt with legislation knows how slow the process can be. 

Why is the process so slow? There are many steps to get a bill to become law and many factors can affect the timing. Read on as we lay out the process in chronological order.


How Laws Are Formed

1. The Idea

Anyone can come up with an idea for a new law, not just those elected to office. These ideas can be suggested to legislators i.e Senators and Representatives. It can take time for the idea to be picked up, but if an issue is pressing enough or gains enough support, officials will create a bill for it.

2. The Bill

The bill is introduced in Congress, which is made up of two legislative bodies: the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Bills are introduced by the primary sponsor – a Senator or a Representative. In the House of Representatives, bills are placed in a wooden box called “the hopper.” The bill is then assigned a legislative number before the Speaker of the House sends it to a committee.

3. The Committee

Once the Committee receives the proposed bill, the members (which are made up of Representatives and Senators) research, discuss, and revise it. They vote to accept or reject the bill and its changes before sending it to the House or Senate floor for debate or to a subcommittee for further research.

4. Debates and Votes

After committee review, Senators and Representatives debate the bill and propose changes before voting. If the bill is passed, it’ll move to the other house for a similar process of committee review, debate, and voting. Both houses have to agree on the same version of the final bill before it goes to the President. 

5. The President Decides

Once the bill reaches the President, any of the following actions can be taken:

  • Veto – The bill is rejected and returned to Congress with given reasons. However, Congress can override the veto with ⅔ vote of those in the House and the Senate, thus crossing the bill into law.
  • No action – The President can take no action on the bill. If ten days pass with no action and Congress is in session, the bill automatically becomes law.
  • Pocket veto – If Congress goes out of session within the ten days after giving the President the bill, it will not become part of the law if not decided upon.


State Legislation

The process of adding laws is essentially the same at the state level, where instead of the bill going to the President, it goes to the Governor.

Repealing Laws

To repeal active legislation, the steps are the same as passing a new bill. Legislators would introduce a “new bill” to remove specific language from the current laws in place. The other course of action is if the Supreme Court deems a bill unconstitutional.

With laws that started as a citizen initiative, the process of altering that law varies by state. For example, certain states require a certain number of years to pass with the law in effect before any changes or repeal can be made to it. With other states, there’s no requirement in passage of time, but instead with the number of votes. 


Our legislative system has been designed so that there are checks every step of the way. This is certainly not a bad thing, and is why the process is a lengthy one with no guarantees. One of the benefits of living under a democratic political system is that anybody can initiate the creation of a law, and that non-politicians, under certain circumstances, can influence legislation.