A Nation of Laws

The United States is a nation of laws. On a local, state, and national level, tens of thousands of laws are passed each year. Some are fairly innocuous, such as laws commemorating certain dates and events, while others have a profound impact on our daily lives. They can be broad or narrow, well known or obscure. Some have been around for decades, and others a few years.

Each year, thousands of bills are introduced in both chambers of Congress. Of these, only a fraction — a couple hundred at most — will make it to the president's desk for signature and become law. The rest are either quietly forgotten or rejected outright. The process of lawmaking is the central focus of the legislative branch, and its single most important duty.

Most of the legislation that is taken up by Congress involves mandatory issues: appropriations bills (those that determine which programs receive money) and authorization bills (those that allocate the amount of money for programs). Some matters are revisited every few years, such as increases in the minimum wage and revisions to the federal tax code. Other matters may be visited once every few decades. Incoming presidents typically have one or two high-profile pieces of legislation that make up the thrust of the domestic agenda, and those are typically given priority by the Congress.

Much of the mandatory legislation comes in the form of “omnibus” bills, or comprehensive packages of bills. These mega-bills typically cover a broad range of issues, and in the past would have been voted on as separate bills. For reasons of political expediency, both chambers are increasingly using these omnibus bills to accomplish much of the legislative work.

It's important to keep in mind that the framers of the Constitution purposely established a framework whereby lawmaking would be difficult. Their biggest fear was creating an overreaching federal government that would usurp the authority of state and local governments. To guard against this, the framers created a lawmaking process that includes many opportunities for dissenters to derail legislation. As a consequence, only measures with broad appeal are able to survive this legislative gauntlet to become law.

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