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The U.S. Federal Legislative Process


Introduced billsHearingsReportsDebates
Approved billsPresidential actionPublic lawsRules and regulations

A member of the House of Representatives or a member of the Senate may introduce a bill for consideration. The bill is first announced in the Congressional Record, where you can find the bill number, who introduced the bill, which committee the bill was referred to, and the stated intent of the bill. The full text of bills can be found at GPO Access (1993-) and Thomas (1989-).

The bill is then referred to a committee. If the committee decides not to consider the bill, or if the committee reports unfavorably on it, the bill dies. If the committee decides the bill has merit, they will hold hearings on the bill. Text of House Committee Hearings and Senate Committee Hearings can be found at Thomas and at GPO Access.

After hearings are held, a report will be issued that contains the revised bill, the committee's recommendations, and background information. Reports are available at GPO Access and Thomas.

If the committee recommends passage of the bill, it is then reported out to the full House or Senate for consideration (known as "floor action"). These proceedings and debates can be found in the Congressional Record, which is issued daily when Congress is in session. These daily issues of the Congressional Record are indexed in the Congressional Record Index (CRI), which consists of two parts: the index proper, which lists individuals, organizations, and topics mentioned in the Congressional Record, and the History of Bills, which lists legislative actions reported in the Congressional Record.

If the full chamber approves the bill (which usually, by this point, has gone through an amendment process), the bill will then be sent to the other chamber for consideration. The bill is again assigned to a committee, which will either table the bill (which effectually kills it) or release it to the full chamber for consideration and approval.

Members of both chambers then meet to work out any differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The revised bill is sent back to both houses for a vote. The text of the final, approved bill (the "enrolled" version) can be found at GPO Access and Thomas. To determine whether a congressional member voted for or against a bill, go to Project Vote Smart or the Roll Call Votes section of Thomas.

Once passed by Congress, the bill is then sent to the President. The President may sign the bill, veto it, or simply ignore it. If he signs it, the bill becomes a law. If he vetoes it, the bill may go back to Congress to be amended. Or, Congress may override the veto with a 2/3 majority vote. If the President simply ignores the bill (neither signs it nor vetoes it) and does not return it to Congress within 10 days, the bill becomes a law. If Congress adjourns before that 10-day period, the bill is automatically vetoed; this action is known as a “pocket veto”. The Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents and Public Papers of the Presidents are good sources to use to determine the President's action or inaction on a bill.

Once the bill has become a law, it is assigned a "public law" number. If you have the bill number, you can easily find the public law number by browsing the "Public laws in bill number sequence" section of Thomas. This page will then lead you to the text of the law and other relevant information pertaining to the law. Public laws can also be searched at GPO Access.

The first printing of the new law is called a "slip law". At the end of each session of Congress, slip laws are compiled into a set called Statutes at Large. (Because the text of a law does not change between its status as a slip law and when it is published in Statutes at Large, there is not a separate Statutes at Large database.) Finally, public laws are incorporated every six years into the U.S. Code, which is a codification of all general and permanent laws of the United States. The U.S. Code is arranged by subject, and shows the present status of laws that have been amended.

Congress is charged with the responsibility of enacting laws, as explained in the process above. Once a law is in effect, it is subject to rules and regulations written by federal agencies; these rules determine how the laws will be interpreted and applied. All newly-proposed regulations are announced in the Federal Register. Each issue of the Federal Register is organized into four categories:

  • Presidential Documents, including Executive orders and proclamations;
  • Rules and Regulations, including policy statements and interpretations of rules;
  • Proposed Rules, including petitions for rulemaking and other advance proposals; and
  • Notices, including scheduled hearings and meetings open to the public, grant applications, and administrative orders.
The rules published in the Federal Register are codified in an annual set called the Code of Federal Regulations. The CFR is a subject arrangement of all regulations currently in force. The CFR is divided into 50 titles which represent broad areas subject to federal regulation. Each title is divided into chapters, which are assigned to the agencies that issue regulations pertaining to that subject area. Each chapter is divided into parts; each part is then divided into sections. The CFR is updated by the daily Federal Register. These two publications must be used together to determine the latest version of any given rule. When a federal agency publishes a regulation in the Federal Register, that regulation usually is an amendment to the existing CFR in the form of a change, an addition, or a removal.

Note: Early Congressional proceedings are available online from the Library of Congress. See A Century of Lawmaking For a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1873 for bills and resolutions, House and Senate Journals, debates and other proceedings. The information included here pertains to the Continental Congress, Constitutional Convention, and the 1st-42nd Congresses.

Last updated by jduvall on 12/10/2010