How does a bill usually become a law?

The partial government shutdown and near-default on the US debt provides a great opportunity for students to understand how the U.S. government is supposed to make laws — as well as what just happened. At TLC Middle School, we will take time to unpack major events such as this one.

Laws start as ideas, and then they get written down on paper and those ideas on paper are called “bills.” The classic Schoolhouse Rock video, I’m Just a Bill is a good starting point for students who have not studied this process before (go ahead and watch it!)

There are usually 100 members in the Senate and 435 in the House. Sometimes, a few states don’t have all their representatives and senators in place, and that’s why the votes last night didn’t quite add to 100 and 435.

It would be good for students to learn who represented them in Congress on this vote (two senators plus a representative), and how those folks voted. That information is easily available online.

The vote late last night in the Senate was 81-18, and in the House of Representatives, it was 285-144. Once the House and the Senate signed the same bill, they brought it to the President, who signed it late last night and made it a law.

The bill, which is now a law, was something called a “continuing resolution” that agrees to fund the federal government, which had been shut down since October 1 (the federal government’s fiscal year runs from October 1 to September 30).

The bill that passed both the House and the Senate did two main things:

1) it funded the government for the 2013-14 fiscal year

2) it raised the debt ceiling, which is the maximum amount the US government can borrow to pay its bills. We won’t get into that topic too much here — I want to focus on how a bill becomes a law — but here’s a chart that shows how the debt ceiling has gone up over the past 30+ years:

debt ceiling

This chart is a good example of how students at TLC will work on a regular basis with big and small numbers. In this case, we are talking about trillions of dollars. How big is a trillion? We’d explore that sort of thing regularly.

Getting back to the Schoolhouse Rock video (do watch it if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it — it’s just 3 minutes long and has a catchy tune) — that doesn’t get into specifics.

For instance, if a bill gets vetoed by the President,


the video says that “if the President vetoes me, I have to go back to Congress, and by that time you’re so old…”

Middle School students might be interested to learn that Congress can override a Presidential veto with 2/3 of the vote in both the House and the Senate.

The last time a president had his veto over-ridden was during the presidency of George W. Bush. Students who want more details can consult the List of Presidential Vetoes page on Wikipedia.

The controversy was really over the Affordable Care Act, a law that Congress passed in 2010, and that was litigated at the Supreme Court, where it was found constitutional in June of 2012.

Recent events provide a real-world example of a law being drafted, debated, amended, passed, challenged, and implemented.  If people don’t like the Affordable Care Act, they can vote in new representatives who can repeal the law in Congress (though such a repeal surely would be vetoed by the president — at least by President Obama, who championed it – so it would take a 2/3 majority in the house and the senate to over-ride a veto).

Lots of amazing learning opportunities here.

And this screen capture, from the Wall Street Journal this morning, gives us an opportunity to explore some of the odder rules in the Senate, such as what a “cloture” vote means (it ends debate on a topic and calls for a vote) and how a cloture vote can end a filibuster.


Besides being a fun word to say, a filibuster is a stalling tactic that’s worthy of some time to unpack, if students seem interested. Texas Senator Ted Cruz recently filibustered for 21 hours in late September to speak about why he opposes “Obama-care.”


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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