Bills and Joint Resolutions

Who Can Do This

  • Any member of the House or Senate

Difficulty: Moderate


Because the overwhelming majority of bills never proceed beyond committee, and those that do may take multiple congresses to reach enactment, legislation should be seen as a last recourse, after other options have been exhausted.  However, since the mere introduction of legislation can often exert a policy impact – even if it is never acted upon – bills can also be used to stimulate discussion and create the impetus for policy change.  In addition, they are often useful as organizing tools for interested communities.


Once enacted, bills, which are given an H.R. or S. designation, are binding on the Executive Branch.  There is no substantive difference between bills and joint resolutions, which also must be passed by both houses in identical form and signed by the President.  Joint resolutions are generally used to provide continuing or emergency appropriations, make amendments to the Constitution, disapprove arms sales or other executive branch actions, and authorize or prohibit the use of military force.

Good Practices

  • Research current law and legal precedents before drafting new legislation.
  • Work with legislative counsel and the parliamentarian’s office from the start to ensure that your legislation will be referred only to the desired committee.
  • Work with committee staff to obtain the support, if possible, of the chair and/or ranking member.
  • Provide drafts of the legislation to the administration and key stakeholders for comment prior to introduction.
  • Find a member of the other party to be an original cosponsor, where appropriate.
  • Seek cosponsors in the drafting stage, before you have a final version, in order to give them some ownership and a stake in the outcome.
  • Find a member of the other body to introduce companion legislation.
  • Develop supporting materials and documentation, including a section-by-section analysis if necessary, to explain how the legislation would change current law and the reasons why the change is needed.
  • Make a floor statement upon introduction of the bill.  Publish it on your website, tweet it and place a link on your Facebook page.
  • If your legislation has been introduced repeatedly but never acted upon, passing the baton to a member of the other party, or to a Member with greater influence on the issue, may help to stimulate progress.

Instructive Examples

  1. Congress Imposes Sanctions Over President’s Veto.  On September 29, 1986, the House voted 313-83 to override President Ronald Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 (PL 99-440) – the first piece of legislation to impose wide-ranging economic sanctions against a “friendly” country because of its human rights record.  The Senate’s 78-21 vote to override came shortly thereafter.  The Act is widely seen as a major factor in generating international pressure for political change that helped South African activists bring an end to apartheid.
  2. Forcing a Discussion.  Senators Rand Paul and Chris Murphy introduced a joint resolution (S.J.Res.39, 114th) to disapprove the sale of major defense equipment to Saudi Arabia.  Although an attempt to discharge the resolution from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was tabled by a vote of 71-27, killing the measure, the vote occasioned the first public debate about the U.S. role in the Yemen conflict.  It also demonstrated a changed political landscape for Saudi Arabia, which had not seen its arms relationship with the U.S. seriously challenged since an effort to reject the sale of AWACS radar planes was narrowly defeated in 1981.
  3. Passing the Baton.  In 2006, Rep. Chris Smith introduced legislation (H.R. 5680, 109th) to cut off military aid to Ethiopia because of its human rights record.  Its passage was stymied by highly-paid Republican lobbyists who prevented it from being taken up on the House floor.  However, in 2007 Democrats retook control of the House, and Rep. Donald Payne introduced a very similar bill (H.R. 2003, 110th) which passed the House under suspension.