XI. The Making of Federal Laws

Catechism of the Constitution Book CoverThe Federalist Papers has posted a PDF copy of an Elementary Catechism on the Constitution from 1828 written by Arthur J. Stansbury. I’m publishing it on Mondays in a series of posts. Because the date of publication was 1828, some content has been changed by later Constitutional amendments. There are no sections in the book, so I’m dividing it into any natural breaks of topics and the posts will vary in length. Any emphases within the text are Stansbury’s.

If every bill in Congress went through this process without the use of tricks and devices that hold to the form, but subvert its intention, there would be fewer laws and better ones.

XI. The Making of Federal Laws

Q. How do Congress proceed in making the laws?

A. A Member usually proposes that some other Members, called a Committee, shall consider whether it will not be proper to make a law for some particular matter, which he explains. If a majority of the Members think it will be best to consider of the matter, they order certain Members to do so. These Members, or Committee. meet together, and having considered the proposal, determine whether it is proper to advise the Members of the House to make a law respecting it. If they think it is they put down in writing the words of such a law as it will be best to make. This writing is called a Bill. They then return to the House, and either in writing or by word of mouth, declare what they have done, and state the reasons for it. Such a statement is called a Committee’s Report. The Bill is then read twice. The Member who first proposed the matter now farther proposes, (or Moves, as it is called) that this Bill be considered by all the Members. If this is agreed to, the Bill is then taken under consideration. Every Member has an opportunity to propose such alterations in it, as he pleases; and every Member may give reasons why such a law ought or ought not to be made. If any alterations are made, the Bill as altered is written over again and read a third time; when, after full consideration, it is Passed, that is, finally agreed to.

Q. Is it now a law?

A. By no means. The Bill thus passed by one House is then sent to the other House. There it is again considered, and, if the House thinks proper, is farther altered. It is then returned to the House where it began. If this House disapproves of the alterations made by the other, it sends the Bill back, that that House may give up the alterations — but if they will not give them up, then a Committee of Conference is appointed; that is, certain Members are sent from each House to meet together, and try to bring the matter into such a form that both Houses will agree to it; — if they succeed, and the Houses agree, the Bill is then Engrossed, (that is, copied in a fair hand) on parchment, and signed by the President and Secretary of the Senate, and by the Speaker and Clerk of the House of Representatives.

Q. Is it now a law?

A. Not yet. The engrossed Bill is then sent to the President of the United States for his approbation; if he approves it, he signs and returns it; the Bill then is called an ACT, and becomes the law of the land.

Q. How if he does not approve it?

A. If he does not approve it, he must return the Bill together with his objections, in writing, to the House in which it began; that House must copy the whole of these objections into their Journal, and then consider the Bill once more. When they have done this, if two thirds of that House shall agree to pass the Bill, they must send it, together with the President’s objections to it, to the other House. There the Bill must, in like manner, be re-considered ; and if two thirds of this House also agree to pass it, it becomes a Law. But in all such cases, the names of all the Members of each House who voted for and against the Bill, must be put down in the Journals.

Q. Suppose the President of the United States should neglect to sign and return a Bill sent to him by Congress?

A. If he does not sign or return any Bill within ten days after it is sent to him, (not counting Sundays) it becomes a Law, unless in that time Congress shall have ceased to sit.

Q. Is not this a better way of making the laws of a Country, than either of those we first considered?

A. It is hard to conceive how greater care could be taken that no wicked, unjust, oppressive, hasty, or unwise Law should pass. There is full time to consider whatever is proposed; such fair opportunity to oppose it, if wrong, and improve it, if imperfect; so many persons, and from so wide a space of country must agree in approving it, that it is scarcely possible any thing very injurious can be enacted; or, at least, if it is, that a different form of Government would have prevented it.

Q. Are there not some evils which attend this mode?

A. Nothing of human contrivance is wholly free from some defect or other; and, in time of war, when the public danger is great, and it is needful that Government should act, not only wisely, but rapidly; some disadvantage may be found to arise from so deliberate a method of passing every Law. But it is far better to put up with this, than to lose the precious blessing of so free and safe a mode of Legislation.

Q. You have said that no Laws can be made for the United States, but by Congress; may Congress make any Laws they please?

A. No. Their power is limited by the Constitution; that is, they have no power, but what the Constitution says they have. It must always be remembered, that the States, when they united to form the General Government, had full power to govern themselves; and that they gave up only a part of their power, for the general welfare. Whatever power, therefore, is not given by the Constitution, to the General Government, still belongs either to the State Governments, or to the people of the United States.

In the heading under Charters of Freedom, you will find a copy of the Constitution as well as links to other pertinent primary documents and commentary on the Constitution.

Elementary Catechism on the Constitution posts:
Elementary Catechism on the Constitution (Preface)
I. The Necessity of Government and Its Forms
II. The American Revolution
III. The Occasion and Purpose of the Constitution
IV. State and National Laws
V. The House of Representatives
VI. The Senate
VII. Impeachment
VIII. Impeachment of the President & The Rule of Law
IX. Meetings of Congress
X. Members of Congress
Book image from The Federalist Papers. Other reading formats of the Elementary Catechism on the Constitution can be found here.


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