What is a bill?

I'm Just a BillBob Eschliman


If you have ever read our coverage of the Iowa General Assembly, you have likely seen phrases like “House File” or “Senate Study Bill,” and in doing so, perhaps you wondered what that means. Well, we’re going to help you out with that today.

As we all learned in the 1970s and early ’80s, bills are nothing more than ideas for legislation. They originate from a lot of different sources, but can only be filed by legislators, legislative committees, the governor, and government agencies.

But only bills taken up by legislators and legislative committees can ever become law. So, read on and learn about each of the various bill types, how they are crafted and handled, how the legislative process works, and what that all means to you.



Legislative bills – called either House Files or Senate Files – and are crafted to change existing laws, to create new laws, or to require appropriations from state funds for specific purposes. Only legislators and legislative committees can create legislative bills.


Study Bills

Study bills – with either “House” or “Senate” as prefaces in their names – are used to “feel the temperature of the room” regarding certain issues. The governor, state agencies, and legislative committees can sponsor study bills for committee consideration. If approved by a committee, a study bill is re-filed as a legislative bill.



Simple resolutions are proclamations made by either chamber that are used generally as an expression of appreciation, congratulations, or sympathy. They carry no legal weight and can never result in laws or change existing laws.


Concurrent Resolutions

Concurrent resolutions relate only to temporary legislative matters – such as calling joint conventions (e.g. Gov. Branstad’s Condition of the State Address) – or to deal with rules that apply to both chambers (e.g. joint ethics rules). They are prefaced by which chamber they originate from (House or Senate), but must be adopted by both chambers to become binding. Concurrent resolutions can neither amend existing laws, nor create new laws.


Joint Resolutions

Joint resolutions can have the effect of law by proposing amendments to the Constitution of Iowa, or the United States Constitution, to nullify administrative rules, or to accept donations of property on behalf of the State of Iowa. Like concurrent resolutions, they must be adopted by both chambers, and they only require gubernatorial approval if they require an appropriation or invoke a temporary law. Also like concurrent resolutions, joint resolutions are prefaced by which chamber they originate from.


Once bills are approved by one chamber, they are “messaged” (transmitted electronically) to the other. In the “old days,” they were hand delivered by pages of the adopting chamber to the other chamber for consideration. Bills must be adopted by both chambers to become law.

When each chamber adopts its own bill for a particular issue, appropriation, or changes to Iowa Code (amended laws or new laws), and those bills do not agree completely, a conference committee must be convened to iron out the differences. Conference committees are comprised of five representatives and five senators, each selected by the leadership of their chambers.

It is the conference committee’s job to study the House and Senate bills and attempt to find compromise that will be agreeable to both chambers. If they reach an agreement, a compromise bill, called a conference committee report, is presented to both chambers.

Conference committee reports may not be amended and must have an up-or-down vote in both chambers. If one or both chambers rejects the report, a second conference committee will be convened. If no consensus is reached, the bill cannot become law – which can become important if there is a disagreement about annual appropriations.

Bills that are passed by the legislature are sent to the governor for final action. Gov. Branstad may do one of three things with any bill:

  • sign the bill into law, and it take effect either immediately or on a specified date contained in the bill;
  • ignore the bill, in which case it becomes law after three days and takes effect either immediately or as specified in the bill, or;
  • veto the bill, signifying his objection to the bill either in whole or in part.



There are three types of vetoes at the governor’s discretion. The most common is a basic veto, which is a complete rejection of the entire bill – and he must explain the veto in his message back to both chambers. Vetoes may be overridden with a vote of two-thirds of the members of both the House and the Senate.

In the case of appropriations bills, and most importantly, the budget bill, the governor has the authority to line-item veto expenditures – again, explaining each line-item veto – he feels are not appropriate, or are not fiscally responsible. A line-item veto may also be overridden with a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

Bills approved in the final three days of the legislative session may become the subject of a “pocket veto” in which the governor takes no action. After 30 days, those bills fail become law. A pocket veto cannot be overridden, but the vetoed bill can be revived in a subsequent special session.