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A bill is a proposed law under consideration by a legislature. A bill does not become law until it is passed by the legislature and, in most cases, approved by the executive. Once a bill has been enacted into law, it is called an Act or a statute.
The term bill is primarily used in the United States and the Commonwealth. In the United Kingdom, the subparts of a bill are known as clauses while the subparts of an Act are known as sections.
The preparation of a bill may involve the production of a draft bill prior to the introduction of the bill into the legislature. In the United Kingdom, draft Bills are frequently considered to be confidential.
In the British/Westminster system, where the executive is drawn from the legislature and usually holds a majority in the lower house, most bills are introduced by the executive. In principle, the legislature meets to consider the demands of the executive, as set out in the Queen's Speech or Speech from the Throne.
While mechanisms exist to allow other members of the legislature to introduce bills, these are subject to strict timetables and usually fail unless a consensus is reached. In the US system, where the executive is formally separated from the legislature, all bills must originate from the legislature. Bills can be introduced using the following procedures:
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In the United States Congress, in both the House and the Senate, a bill may be introduced by a member placing a hard copy into a wooden box called a hopper. The bill must bear the signature of the member introducing it to verify that the member actually intended to introduce the bill. The member is then called the sponsor of that bill. That member may add the names of other members onto the bill who also support it. They are called co-sponsors. If a member was a co-sponsor and their name was on the bill when it was introduced, they are called an original co-sponsor.
Members may also remove their names as co-sponsors from bills if the bill is later amended such that they no longer support it; this is typically done via unanimous consent. Additional co-sponsors to bills are printed in the Congressional Record in a section designated for that purpose.
After a bill is placed in the hopper, the clerk will digitize the bill and make it available to read online through the Government Printing Office and the Library of Congress. The Speaker will also refer the bill to one or more committees. These committees consider law relating to each policy area jurisdictions. Thousands of bills are introduced in every session of Congress, and no single member can possibly be adequately informed on all the issues that arise. The committee system is a way to provide for specialization, or a division of the legislative labor. Sometimes called "little legislatures," committees usually have the final say on pieces of legislation. Committees only very rarely are deprived over control of a bill; although this kind of action is provided for in the rules of each chamber.
Bills are generally considered through a number of readings. This refers to the historic practice of the clerical officers of the legislature reading the contents of a bill to the legislature. While the bill is no longer read, the motions on the bill still refer to this practice.
In the British/Westminster system, a bill is read the first time when it is introduced. This is accompanied by an order that the bill be printed and considered again. At the second reading the general merits of the bill are considered – it is out of order to criticise a bill at this stage for technical defects in drafting. After the second reading the bill is referred to a committee, which considers the bill line by line proposing amendments. The committee reports to the legislature, at which stage further amendments are proposed. Finally a third reading debate at which the bill as amended is considered in its entirety. In a bicameral legislature the process is repeated in the other house, before the Bill is submitted to the executive for approval.
Bills passed by the legislature usually require the approval (often called Royal Assent, especially in constitutional monarchies) of the executive such as the monarch, president, or governor to become law.
In parliamentary systems, this is normally a formality (since the executive is under the de facto control of the legislature), although in rare cases approval may be refused or reserved.
In presidential systems, the need to receive approval can be used as a political tool by the executive, and its refusal is known as a veto. In presidential systems, the legislature often has the power to override the veto of the executive by means of a supermajority. Any branch at anytime may decline the proposed bill.
In constitutional monarchies, certain matters may be covered by a so-called royal prerogative. In the United Kingdom, for example, these include payments to the royal family, succession to the throne, and the monarch's exercise of prerogative powers. The legislature may have significantly less power to introduce bills on such issues and may require the approval of the monarch or government of the day. The Governor General will get the Queen to sign the bill and the bill becomes law.
Legislatures give bills numbers as they progress.
In the United States, all bills originating in the House of Representatives begin with "H.R." and all bills originating from the Senate begin with an "S.". Every two years, at the start of odd-numbered years, the United States Congress recommences numbering from 1. This means that two different bills can have the same number. Each two-year span is called a congress, tracking the terms of Representatives elected in the nationwide biennial House of Representatives elections, and each congress is divided into year-long periods called sessions.
In the United Kingdom, for example, the Coroners and Justice Act in 2009 started as Bill 9 in the House of Commons. Then it became Bill 72 on consideration by the Committee, after that it became House of Lords Bill 33. Then it became House of Lords Bill 77, returned to the House of Commons as Bill 160 before finally being passed as Act no. 29. Parliament recommences numbering from one at the beginning of each session. This means that two different bills may have the same number. Sessions of parliament usually last a year. They begin with the State Opening of Parliament, and end with Prorogation.