civics 101

A Special Joe Primer

We know you learned all about how the government works in 6th grade, but if you're like us you probably forgot it all in 7th. Here's a primer to jog the memory. See Citizen Joe's government page for more discussions of what exactly our government does.

States and DC

When we think of the "United States of America," we tend to forget that our country is exactly that - a federation, or uniting, of states. If you look at the constitution - or listen to states' rights advocates - you'll be reminded that the states have a lot of powers that were given them when the country was founded. In fact, according to the constitution the states are the default power; all the powers that are listed in the Constitution (creating a post office, assembling an army, etc.) are powers that are given to the federal government and anything that is not listed in the Constitution is automatically a power of the states. As the nation grew, however, the federal government had a tendency to grow its powers too, so much so that today it sometimes seems like the states don't play much of a role at all. Yet they still do. Here's a rough breakdown of who has what power:

The federal government (again, as listed in the Constitution) has the power to handle:

  • defense

  • trade (with other countries and between states)

  • immigration

  • the post office

  • copyrights and patents

  • coining money

  • collecting taxes to "provide for the general welfare" of the states (you can guess that this one leaves a lot of room for interpretation)

  • and creating all laws that are "necessary and proper" to carry out the powers it was given (another invitation to grow)

The states technically get everything else, including the power to handle:

  • regulating business and industry (though the feds - through their power to regulate trade between the states - do a lot of this too)

  • crime

  • education

  • health

  • etc.

If states have so much power, why does it seem like the feds are involved in everything? A few reasons. The federal government's responsibility to regulate trade between the states give them entree into regulating almost all business that crosses state lines. The "general welfare" clause in the Constitution also opens up the door to the feds raising and giving money for just about anything - and with money, sometimes come strings. After the Civil War, the Constitution was amended to spell out certain rights for citizens and "persons" that limited what states could do (and gave Congress some power to "enforce" them through legislation). Lastly, since the courts have ruled they can, the feds are in the business of enforcing even the pre-Civil War constitutional rights in the states.

The federal trump. The states are the default power, but the feds always have the trump. If it ever happens that a state has a law that contradicts a federal law, the federal law is the one that has to be followed. Of course there's not always agreement on what kind of laws the feds can make - when that happens, you usually end up with a states' rights case in court that may even make it to the Supreme Court.

The three "branches"

Three "branches" of government are found both at the federal and state levels:

  • one that makes the laws (the legislature, or Congress in the case of the federal government),

  • one that "executes" laws by enforcing them and creating the programs they order (the executive, or president), and

  • one that settles disputes when there's disagreement about what the law says (the judiciary, with the Supreme Court at top).

How Congress makes laws

If you remember "I'm just a bill sitting on Capitol Hill" from School House Rock, there's bad news and bad news - the process of making a law isn't that simple but it is just about that dull. The overview below is largely cribbed from's 13 step overview.

Getting a bill started: Anyone can write a bill, but you have to be a member of Congress to introduce it to the House or the Senate. The first step is to give the bill a number; if it starts in the House it gets an H.R. in front of the number, if in the Senate, an S. (Bills are not the only things Congress considers - there are also joint resolutions, concurrent resolutions and simple resolutions, but because they're not so common, we'll spare you the details.)

Surviving committee: The first hurdle is for a bill to get through a committee - without a committee's approval a bill will die before it gets to the House or Senate floor for a vote (there are few exceptions). There are standing committees on policy areas ranging from Agriculture to Veterans' Affairs. Bills are first referred to a committee, which can consider the bill straight off or can refer the bill to a subcommittee for study and hearings. You may hear that a bill is "marked up" - that means it meets a subcommittee's approval and gets handed back to the standing committee. The full committee can go ahead and have further hearings of its own or it can just vote to have the bill go to the full House or Senate, known as "ordering a bill reported." It is what it sounds like: the bill is put into a report and sent to the chamber where it came from.

Getting on the Calendar: Bills next get put on the calendar for the House or Senate floor (there is more than one calendar in the House). In both the House and the Senate the all important question of when, or if, a bill ever gets to the floor is largely left up to the speaker (of the House) or the majority leader (of the Senate).

Debate and Voting: Once on the floor, there are rules on the procedure for debating a bill. Amendments can also be added to a bill before going up for a vote. A bill passes with a simple majority.

Note on filibusters: Senators can stall a bill to death by simply continuing to debate it and never bringing it to vote, a process called filibustering. A filibuster can be stopped, however, but it needs 60 senators to vote for the debating to come to an end. In this odd way a minority of 41 senators can stop a bill being passed even if 59 senators would approve it. Read more on filibusters...

Going to the other chamber and ironing out any differences: Once one part of Congress passes a bill it gets referred to the other half and goes through roughly the same process. A bill can be approved as is, in which case it goes straight to the president's desk. If the second chamber makes minor alterations, it will likely just go back to the first chamber for a second thumbs up. If major changes are made, however, the bill will go to a conference committee to be ironed out. If no agreement can be made, the bill dies. If a compromise is made, both the House and Senate must then approve the conference report.

The president's signature - or not: The final step is to get the president's signature after which a bill becomes law. The bill can also become law if the president doesn't do a thing for 10 days and Congress is still in session. The president can also choose to "veto" a bill if he doesn't like it. (If Congress is adjourned and he does nothing, it likewise is effectively vetoed too.) If vetoed, a bill can still become law if both chambers of Congress "override" the veto with 2/3rds of the vote.

Only one in twenty five bills make it all the way through in the year they're introduced; for the 96% that don't get turned into law, it's either the wastebasket or the recycling bin. (Washington Post)

Want more details on the process? You can go to town with


Did we miss something, let some slant slip in, lose a link - or do you just have something to say? Drop a line below! In the spirit of open dialogue, cJ asks you keep it civil, keep it real and keep it focused on the message, not the messenger. See our policy page for more on what that all means.

Voting on a bill-yea, nay, present, not voting

What is the rationale for using "not voting" when a bill is up for pass? Is it issue avoidance? Is it somoething else. If a congressman voted aye when initially offered whey would one change to "not voting" when up for final approval out of confrence? Thanks for your assistance.

Dan (not verified) | February 11, 2010 - 5:14pm

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President can sign a Bill into Law, or a Bill gets the 2/3rds majority
from both Houses,and then use these "signing statements" to ignore the
Law? Have other Presidents done this? Is it Constitutional?

Arnald (not verified) | January 20, 2009 - 6:59am


How are sections added to a bill or law and how can you determine who added the section?

Virginia Wilson (not verified) | May 7, 2008 - 5:08pm

nice explanation

thank for the clarifying, now i know how do they do the laws=)

musicman (not verified) | April 15, 2008 - 2:28pm

Passge of Bills

I don't understand how the President can sign a Bill into Law, or a Bill gets the 2/3rds majority from both Houses,and then use these "signing statements" to ignore the Law? Have other Presidents done this? Is it Constitutional? (Not that that would make a difference with this President...after all, the "Constitution is just a piece of paper."

Alan Veil | December 29, 2007 - 5:14pm


I do not believe that the majority leader of the senate has the same power (as the speaker of the house) to not place a bill (coming out of committee) on the calendar.....

kelly (not verified) | November 14, 2007 - 3:08pm
talker's picture


Kelly - You may be technically right (I just spent a few minutes going through Thomas' overview of the legislative process and, frankly, got too dizzy before I could find an answer), but in practice - at least in my experience over the past three years following the congressional agenda - the senate majority leader yields a lot of power in determining which bills come up for a vote. It may take a lot of legislative tricks for him to do so, but the result is kinda the same. ( seems to have a similar impression.)

If you have more stomach than I do for legislativ-ese and can find the technical answer from Thomas, I'm sure our other readers would be interested as well, so please let us know! Thanks, Julia

talker | November 16, 2007 - 10:08am