Bringing the Legislative Process to Life (real life, that is) for Students

by Elaine Larson

Every American citizen at some point in his or her education learns about how a bill becomes law in the U.S. legislative system. Often that lesson depicts a linear process starting with bill introduction and ending with the President’s signature. And often that lesson is less than stimulating to students. But anyone who watches the evening news or reads the daily newspaper observes a process that is actually less tidy, often more contentious, and significantly more dynamic than that linear model suggests.

According to Lee Hamilton, former Congressman and Director of The Center on Congress at Indiana University, “The standard textbook diagram of the basic legislative process…is accurate…as far as it goes. But to get a truer sense of how a bill really becomes law, you need to probe deeper. The actual process is far more dynamic, complex, and challenging. The standard diagram cannot possibly convey the obstacles, the strategies, the hard work, the defeats and victories, and the sheer excitement that attend the legislative process.”

In order to accurately describe this real-life process, played out daily in Congress, the Center on Congress has produced a comprehensive set of resources available free of charge on its Web site at The Web site section on “The Legislative Process” covers the nuts and bolts of the process – tracking the various stages a bill goes through to become law.
Important themes are presented through two interactive e-learning modules, background papers, Lee Hamilton Commentaries (essays), a congressional question and answer section, and several lesson plans ready to use in the home classroom.

E-Learning Modules
“The Dynamic Legislative Process” e-learning module allows students to compare the typical textbook legislative process with the actual process followed by the U.S. Congress, and students will see how our untidy process has produced solid results. Students will also get a chance to hear some interviews with experts on Congress, voice their opinions on how they think the process should work, and see how others who used the module voted.
This module has six self-contained sections. The sections can be viewed in their entirety and sequentially, or each section also can be used alone as a single assignment.

1. Introduction: Describes what is included in this module and explains what students can expect to learn.
2. Textbook Legislative Process: Includes an interactive quiz about Congress and describes how most textbooks explain the legislative process.
3. Public Criticisms: Lists five common criticisms of Congress and gives an opportunity to decide if you agree or disagree with these criticisms.
4. Dynamic Legislative Process: Describes the complex nature of the legislative process.
5. Solid Results: Highlights some of the results that have come out of the legislative process. It also includes two videos about how the legislative process has served our nation.

Lee Hamilton Summary and Links: Provides a concluding statement from Lee Hamilton, plus a list of resources and links to other relevant Web sites.
In the e-learning module “How a Member Decides To Vote” students learn about the various influences that affect how a Member of Congress decides to vote on a bill. In this simulation, each student role-plays a Member of Congress and is asked to vote on a proposed Constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration.
There is no winning or losing in the game. Students come away with a better understanding of all that is involved in deciding how to cast a vote in Congress.

In these essays, Lee Hamilton explains how the complex process has produced solid results.

• How a Bill Really Becomes Law describes the process of how a bill becomes a law. Hamilton explains that the process is more dynamic than most textbooks describe it.
• Congressional Bickering explains that heated debate in Congress should be expected because Representatives and Senators feel strongly about issues and want to represent the best interests of their constituents.
• Congress Needs the Deliberative Process describes the importance of having a slow and thoughtful legislative process in which all proposals receive careful scrutiny and all voices are considered.
• The Importance of Good Process discusses the trend towards “unconventional lawmaking” and explains why the traditional, slow-moving legislative process is necessary to uphold our system of government.
• How Members Vote describes the range of factors Members of Congress must consider when trying to decide how to vote.

Congress Backgrounder: Legislative Process is a detailed, comprehensive section that includes a concise description of the stages of the legislative process plus background information on:

• Bicameralism
• Rules and procedures governing the legislative process
• Bill development and introduction
• Types of legislation
• Bill referral
• Committee consideration
• Floor action
• Debate and amendment
• Approval of conference report
• Presidential action
• Changing trends

In Congress Q&A several common questions about the legislative process are answered.

Lesson Plans
“The Legislative Process” provides lesson plans and activities that will help the home educator use the resources in the classroom.
For example, lesson plans for the e-learning module “The Dynamic Legislative Process” include:

How a Bill Becomes a Law (Gr 5–8) - Examine Article I, Sections 1, 7, and 8, of the U.S. Constitution and discuss the authority and restrictions placed on the Congress in making laws.

The Role of the Executive Branch in the Lawmaking Process (Gr 5 –8) - Examine the role of the Executive Branch — the President — in the lawmaking process.

How Congress Works (Gr 5–8) - Examine the basic structure of the U.S. Congress and its role in our government. Students will then discuss if or how Congress might change the way it runs.

A Closer Look at the Lawmaking Process (Gr 9–12) - Examine the role that Congressional committees play in the process, learn how one’s Congressional representatives can influence legislation through their specific committee assignments, and discuss non-governmental factors in the legislative process.

Your Turn to Vote (Gr 9–12) - Learn about interactions within the legislature; about relationships among legislators, party leaders, and special interests and about the nitty-gritty of the legislative process.

Why Does Congress Work That Way? (Gr 9–12) - Analyze how the Constitution defines Congress and its role. Discuss how people think Congress should work and evaluate how effectively the legislative branch of the government is serving the purposes for which it was created.

To access these resources go to the Center on Congress Web site ( and click on “Learn About Congress.” Then click on “The Legislative Process” in the “Browse by Topic” listing.

According to Congressman Hamilton, “The workings of Congress may sometimes appear to be a tangled and contentious maze, but there is a basic framework within which the action takes place . . . In the end it is reasonably responsive to the expressed desires of the American people. And it has generally allowed our nation for more than 200 years to work through our differences peaceably.”
For more information about the Center on Congress or the Web site, contact the Center at 812-856-4706 or visit ■

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