Rural Housing and the Federal Legislative Process

Rural Housing and the Federal Legislative Process

Enacting Legislation Through the Committee Process

The U.S. Congress debates legislative proposals, called “bills,” through a complex committee system. Only senators and representatives may sponsor a bill, and legislation may be initiated in either chamber of Congress. The Senate and the House each have authorizing committees and appropriations committees. Bills, other than spending legislation, are first introduced to authorizing committees, which are responsible for recommending programs and activities to be approved. These committees establish program objectives and often set dollar ceilings on the amounts that can be appropriated to pay for the programs. Once this authorization stage is complete, appropriations committees recommend the actual level of spending that will be allowed for the programs. This is called “budget authority.” When the bill finally becomes law, the budget authority granted allows federal agencies to draw on the resources of the U.S. Treasury. Federal agencies are then able to enter into financial obligations necessary to perform their work, up to the amount specified in the legislation.

Each committee in Congress is divided into a number of subcommittees which break down the committee’s work into more specific areas for consideration. For example, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry has a subcommittee on forestry, conservation and rural revitalization, but also others for farm subsidies, food stamps, and food inspection. The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs has a housing subcommittee, which covers rural and other housing programs. The subcommittees debate the initial legislative proposal, and if approved by the majority of subcommittee members, the bill is sent to the full committee for consideration. The first consideration of a bill by a committee, and sometimes by a subcommittee, is called the “mark-up,” where members of the committee make changes to the legislation. After mark-up, the committee meets again to vote on the final version of the bill, and majority approval sends the bill to the Senate or House for a “floor vote” with the committee’s recommendation for adoption. A floor vote entails a vote of the full chamber to adopt or reject the bill.

In the Senate, the Majority Leader sets the legislative agenda, and determines when the bill will reach the floor for debate. In the House of Representatives, the Rules Committee sets the legislative agenda, but the Speaker of the House is often consulted to determine when a bill will reach the floor. Once a bill reaches the floor of either the House or Senate, it is open to amendments proposed by other representatives or senators. Should a bill be altered.significantly through the amendment process, or fail to gain enough support for passage in its initial form, it may be sent back to the relevant House or Senate committee for revision.

Once a bill is adopted by one chamber of Congress, the process begins anew in the other chamber. The bill again goes to subcommittee, mark-up, the full committee and another floor vote. In repeating this process, the bill may be altered significantly from what had been passed in the other chamber. The differences between House and Senate versions of the bill must be reconciled, and this is done through a conference committee composed of a small number of congressmen and senators appointed by the leadership of each chamber. Conference committees are not “standing committees,” i.e. permanent, and their membership changes with each new piece of legislation brought to conference. Once differences have been resolved in conference, the bill is voted on by the House and Senate. If both chambers pass the conference bill, the President may either sign or veto it. Upon signing, the bill becomes a law, and any spending authorized by the legislation allows the affected federal agencies to enter into obligations and begin management of their programs. If the President vetoes the legislation, Congress may override the President’s veto with a two-thirds vote of the membership in both chambers. If Congress cannot override the President’s veto, the bill is sent back to the relevant committee for reconsideration and revision.

The process described above is an ideal version of the legislative process. Many variations and nuances result as members of Congress pursue their legislative agendas. For example, both the Senate and the House may be simultaneously considering competing versions of the same bill, or a bill may be passed in one chamber and held up for months before consideration by the other chamber of Congress. It often happens that a bill passed in both chambers gets held up for months before a conference committee meets to resolve differences in the House and Senate versions. A common practice used by representatives and senators to push passage of unpopular legislation is to add their legislation as a “rider” to a bill with more popularity. This means that they attach their controversial proposals while in subcommittee or committee meetings to a larger piece of legislation that has wide support in Congress. In order to pass the popular measure, representatives and senators must then compromise and accept the unpopular provisions that have been added.

In addition to the parliamentary tactics that produce variations in the basic legislative process, the rules of debate differ between the House and the Senate. In the House of Representatives, the Speaker of the House and the Rules Committee have a great deal of power in limiting the time of debate and the questions that may be considered during debate on the House floor. In the Senate, the rules of debate allow unlimited speaking time for any senator who has taken the floor to make a point, as long as the senator follows complex parliamentary guidelines to monopolize debate time and deny others the right to call for a vote on the measure. This practice is called the “filibuster,” and members of the minority party in the Senate may use this procedure to delay votes on bills supported by the majority.

Finally, the budget process differs from the basic process of passing legislation. For more information on the federal budget process, see HAC’s Rural Housing and the Federal Budget Process information sheet. Further information concerning parliamentary tactics in the U.S. Congress may be obtained from any number of texts available at a local public library.

January 2001

House of Representatives:

  1. Committee on Appropriations 202-225-2771
    Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA, and Related Agencies Subcommittee 202-225-2638
    Dept. of Agriculture housing appropriations
    Veterans Affairs, HUD, and Independent Agencies Subcommittee 202-225-3241
    Dept. of Housing & Urban Development appropriations
  1. Committee on Agriculture 202-225-2171
    General Farm Commodities, Resource Conservation, and Credit Subcommittee 202-225-2171
    Rural development authorizing legislation
  1. Committee on Banking and Financial Services 202-225-7502
    Housing and Community Opportunity Subcommittee 202-225-6634
    Housing issues, rural housing & homeless assistance authorizing legislation
  1. Committee on Veterans Affairs 202-225-3527
    Benefits Subcommittee 202-225-9164
    Veterans’ housing programs


  1. Committee on Appropriations 202-224-3471
    Agriculture, Rural Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee 202-224-5270
    Dept. of Agriculture housing appropriations
    Veterans Affairs, HUD, and Independent Agencies Subcommittee 202-224-7211
    Dept. of Housing & Urban Development appropriations
  1. Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry 202-224-2035
    Forestry, Conservation, and Rural Revitalization Subcommittee 202-224-2035 Rural development and Dept. of Agriculture authorizing legislation
  1. Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs 202-224-7391
    Financial Institutions Subcommittee 202-224-7391
    Housing and Transportation Subcommittee 202-224-7391
    HUD program oversight and authorizing legislation
  1. Committee on Indian Affairs 202-224-2251
    No Subcommittees: Housing programs on Indian land and related authorizing legislation
    (Bills considered often in conjunction with HUD-related work of Banking Committee)

For information concerning pending housing legislation, call the committee which has program jurisdiction. If more information is required, request the office phone number for chairperson of the subcommittee, and ask for the Legislative Assistant covering the subcommittee in question.

This Information Sheet was prepared by the Housing Assistance Council. The work that provided the basis for this publication was supported with funding from the Ford Foundation.