How a Bill Becomes a Law: Your Guide to the Legislative Process

July 28, 2023
Angelica Letcher

We all know “How a Bill Becomes a Law,” the famous Schoolhouse Rock song ingrained into the minds of elementary students across the nation. It is animated, it is quirky, and it certainly is memorable. The legislative process, while not as simple as the famous song makes it out to be, is a crucial aspect of our democracy and serves as the conduit through which all major policy decisions move. While it may be easy to understand why government relations professionals, who spend their days in the hallway, care about the process, it is equally important for businesses, non-profits, community leaders and other vested stakeholders to pay keen attention and understand the intricate nature of the rules that dictate the order of business in the General Assembly. Armed with this knowledge, stakeholders from all backgrounds can more effectively participate in the process, advocate for their interests, and navigate the ever-changing regulatory landscape.

​Step One: Introduction and First Reading

  • Policy discussions, agency input, constituent feedback, and industry input help lawmakers to identify problems, shortcomings, or potential improvements within our legal and regulatory system.
  • With a solution in hand, lawmakers propose a new law, known as a bill, which is intended to address specific issues based on their conversations with a diverse group of stakeholders.
  • The bill is read on the legislative floor for the first time and assigned to its committee of jurisdiction.
  • A bill can be introduced in the House of Representatives, the Senate or both chambers at the same time, which is known as a companion bill.

Step Two: Committee Review

  • Bills are assigned to committees related to their subject matter, consisting of lawmakers from both parties with expertise in specific policy areas.
  • Committees analyze the bill during hearings in which committee members, experts, stakeholders, and interest groups present their views and urge a “yes” or “no” vote.
  • Committee members can offer amendments throughout the hearing, proposing changes to the bill’s provisions if adopted by an affirmative vote.
  • At the conclusion of the hearing, the committee votes on whether to recommend the bill for full chamber consideration.
  • If a majority of the committee votes “no,” the bill dies and does not continue in the legislative process.

Step Three: Second Reading

  • Bills recommended by committees proceed to second reading, where they are open to amendments proposed by any lawmaker in that chamber.
  • During this stage, the chamber votes only on proposed amendments, not on the passage of the bill.
  • Once all amendments are considered on second reading, the bill is “engrossed,” or updated for a final chamber vote, and cannot be further amended until it reaches the second chamber.

Step Four: Third Reading and Second Chamber Review

  • Once engrossed, the bill is scheduled for third reading, where it undergoes one final debate by all legislators in the chamber and a “yes” or “no” vote.
  • The full chamber votes on whether to pass the bill out of the first chamber.
  • If the bill is approved in its original chamber, it proceeds to the second chamber for a similar process of committee review, public hearings, floor debate, and voting.

Step Five: Conference Committee and Compromise

  • If the two chambers pass different versions of the bill, the original author can agree to or dissent from the opposing chamber's changes.
  • In case of dissent, a conference committee is appointed to reconcile differences and create a single version acceptable to both chambers.
  • The conference committee comprises four conferees, each representing a caucus member, along with advisors in non-voting roles.
  • Together, they work to achieve a compromise, and both chambers must vote one final time on accepting the changes.

Step Six: Executive Approval

  • Once the bill passes in identical form through both chambers, it is sent to the Governor for approval.
  • The Governor can sign the bill into law, veto it, or let it become law without a signature.
  • If the Governor vetoes the bill, the General Assembly can override the veto with a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers.

As you can see, the legislative process is more than a song for kids. It is a complex procedure for how legislators, advocates and interest groups work to influence and create policies that shape the business and political environment of the state. Staying informed about how a bill becomes a law empowers stakeholders from all types of backgrounds to confidently engage in the lawmaking process, adapt to regulatory changes proactively, and effectively navigate the legislative landscape. Understanding how a bill becomes a law is not just a matter of curiosity; it is an essential tool to thrive in a dynamic and ever-changing regulatory environment.

Eric Perry
Director of Government Relations
at RJL Solutions.
Indianapolis Office
150 West Market Street, Suite 700
Indianapolis, IN 46204
Terre Haute Office
 1125 Wabash Avenue
Terre Haute, IN 47807