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POLS 3133 - The United States Congress: Legislative Process

How a Bill Becomes a Law

Bills

An introduced bill is the first step in the legislative process. After introduction it is numbered and referred to a committee that has jurisdiction over the subject matter. A bill’s number is unique and is the principal way it is tracked in Congress as it was introduced. At each step in the legislative process, a new version of the bill may be printed and available online. Bills are available online at Congress.gov beginning with the 93rd Congress (1973) and on the FDSys Congressional Bills site beginning with the 103rd Congress (1993). For a detailed explanation of the federal legislative process, see How Our Laws Are Made from the Library of Congress.

Hearings

Hearings on proposed legislation are an opportunity for interested parties to present their views; they are valuable because they provide background information on the issue under consideration. Sources for electronic access to hearings are FDsys (1995-present), the Congressional Hearings page from GPO, and by committee through the Senate and House websites.

Laws & Statutes

Once an enrolled bill is signed into law by the president, the original enrolled bill is sent from the White House to the Archivist of the United States for publication. It is assigned a public law number and is issued in print as a "slip law." In addition to the law number, the Office of the Federal Register assigns the legal statutory citation of each law and prepares marginal notes, citations, and the legislative history (a brief description of the Congressional action taken on each public bill), which also contains dates of related presidential remarks or statements). OFR publishes the slip laws through the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO). Therefore, there is a delay from the signed enrolled bill and the availability of the public law. Until then, you can read the full text of the law using the enrolled version of that bill. The text of the enrolled bill will be identical to the public law.

At the end of each session of Congress, the slip laws are compiled into bound volumes called the Statutes at Large, and they are known as "session laws." The Statutes at Large present a chronological arrangement of the laws in the exact order in which they have been enacted.

Every six years, public laws are incorporated into the United States Code, which is a codification of all general and permanent laws of the United States. A supplement to the United States Code is published during each interim year until the next comprehensive volume is published. The U.S. Code is arranged by subject matter, and it shows the present status of laws with amendments already incorporated in the text that have been amended on one or more occasions. Find Public and Private Laws at the FDSys site beginning with the 104th Congress (1995).

Reports

A committee report usually accompanies a bill as it proceeds to the full chamber for debate and voting. In it will be the text of the bill, discussion, minority views and votes in committee. Nearly all enacted laws will have a report by the House and/or Senate committee(s) that studied the bill. A conference report, issued by a specially appointed conference committee of the House and Senate, is of particular value because it explains the compromise language of the final version of the bill. Conference reports are common for budget and tax bills.

Presidential Signing Statements

Upon signing a bill into law, the president will often make statements as to why he or she is doing so. Researchers may find them useful for the Administration’s perspective. To find more information on presidential documents, see the American Presidency subject guide.