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U.S. Legislative Process: Understanding the Process

This guide provides access to the documents processed in the legislative process in the U.S.

Legislative Process and Procedures

Visualizing the Legislative Process

Legislative Explorer   -  Interactive visualization that allows anyone to explore actual patterns of lawmaking in Congress. Draws from an underlying relational database that includes information about the legislative histories, topics and sponsors of bills and resolutions (1973-present). The database is updated nightly to reflect changes in the status of current bills. From Center for American Politics and Public Policy, University of Washington.

Tips for finding older Legislative Histories

Statutes at Large

  • Bill numbers can usually be found on the first page of a United States Statutes at Large documents.

Congressional Record

  •  Bill numbers can be located within the subject index of the Congressional Record.
  •  From 1873 to the present, each volume contains a 'History of Bills and Resolutions' section which includes citations to relevant floor debate as well as congressional reports and documents.  

Digest of Public General Bills and Resolutions

  • In the front of the first volume of each annual two volume set, there is a section entitled "Public Laws - Digests with History," which contains legislative histories.

House and Senate Journals

  • See "History of Bills and Resolutions" sections which givelegislative histories.

Public Laws

  • A legislative history, with references to the Congressional Record, is provided at the end of the Public Law in its slip form and as republished in the Statutes at Large.

Documents in a Legislative History

A complete "Legislative History" will comprise several types of documents related to the bill at various stages of its development:

  1. Bill -- in various versions, e.g. as introduced, as reported out of committee, as an act sent to the President, etc.
  2. Committee Prints -- reports requested by committee members from staff, the Library of Congress, and other sources.  These provide background material but do not necessarily embody the purpose of a bill.
  3. Hearings -- testimony of called witnesses, questions from the committee, and statements by other interested parties.
  4. Committee Reports -- formal description & analysis of the bill, any discussion of concerns, the committee's recommendations, minority views, the recommended text for the bill, estimates of costs involved, and more.  Committee Reports are considered a principle source for the bill's purpose and the legislators' intent.
  5. Floor Debates & Proceedings of Congress pertaining to the bill after it leaves committee.  These reflect a variety of sometimes contradictory perspectives on a bill. See Congressional Record.
  6. Presidential Messages -- signing statements or veto messages released by the President in response to the bill.

Life-Cycle of Federal Legislation

Most pieces of Federal legislation follow the same life cycle:

  1. First, a "bill" is introduced in the House of Representatives or the Senate and given a number (H.R.#### or S.####).
  2. The bill is referred to a committee for consideration.  The committee may hold hearings and mark up the bill (debate, amend, and/or rewrite it) or allow it to die.
  3. The committee votes to send the bill to its originating chamber and reports its recommendation.
  4. The bill comes to the floor of the House or Senate for debate and voting.
  5. A bill that has been passed in its originating chamber is called an "engrossed bill."  It is goes to the other chamber and the process begins again.  Once it has been sent from one chamber to the other, it is called an "act."
  6. If the two chambers differ on the bill, they may hold a conference, later drafting a report of their conclusions.
  7. A act that has passed both houses of Congress is called an "enrolled act."
  8. The enrolled act is sent to the President, who will either sign or veto it, possibly issuing a statement in the process.

Printed Works

Goehlert, Robert U. and Fenton S. Martin.  Congress and Law-Making: Researching the Legislative Process. 2nd ed.  ABC-Clio: Santa Barbara, CA. 1989.
[Van Pelt Reference Stacks:  KF 240 .G63 1989]
Contains detailed chapters on the legislative process and sources used to trace legislation     (Ch. 1, pp. 9-65).

Morehead, Joe.  Introduction to United States Government Information Sources.  6th edition.  Libraries Unlimited, Inc.
[Van Pelt Reference Desk:  J 83 .M665 1999]
See Ch. 5, "Legislative Branch Information Sources."

Congressional Quarterly's Guide to Congress.  5th ed.Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2000.</div>
[Van Pelt Reference Stacks:  JK 1021 .C565 2000]
This two volume work covers the origins of Congress, the powers of Congress, procedures, the electorate, various
pressures on Congress, and qualifications and conduct.

Oleszek, Walter. Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process.  8th ed. Washington, D.C. : CQ Press, c2010.
[Van Pelt Reference: JK 1096 .O44 2010]