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Guide to U.S. Legislative History Sources

Overview of the Legislative Process | Committee Actions: Hearings | Committee Publications: Reports and Documents | Floor Debate | Conference Reports | Congressional Votes | Presidential Actions | Laws | Regulations

Overview of the Legislative Proces

A bill is the form in which most legislation is introduced. In short, a bill must be approved by both the House and the Senate and signed by the President. Once signed, it is a law.

Bills may originate in the House or Senate, are designated H. R. or S. and are numbered consecutively throughout a Congress (each Congress has two sessions and each session lasts one calendar year. For instance, 2006 was the second (and last) session of the 109th Congress and 2007 is the first session of the 110th Congress.).

In each chamber (i.e. House or Senate), the bill goes through approximately the same stages. In some cases, the bill may be introduced in both chambers at the same time. Each will have a different bill number. However, eventually the same bill will have to pass both chambers.

Various types of publications will be generated throughout the process. Following is a brief summary of the publications and steps:

Some differences: The House must initiate all revenue bills; tax and appropriations bills generally only have a House bill number, even though they must be approved by the Senate. The Senate gives "advice and consent" to many Presidential appointments and must approve treaties. See also: How Congress Makes Laws from the House and Senate.

The cartoon below is a simplified way a bill becomes a law. In reality, it is rarely this simple.


Sources for U.S. bills and amendments

Committee Actions: Hearing

Bills are assigned to the appropriate committee of Congress (House or Senate) in which it was introduced. Significant bills are generally supported by hearings held by the committee to determine the views of experts, lobbyists, agency officials, or interested parties. The purpose of a hearing is to determine the need for new legislation or to solicit relevant information. Besides specific legislation, Congress may also hold hearings for general public concern and to raise public awareness about an issue.

Sources for hearings

For historic hearings see Congressional Sources and Indexes

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Committee Publications: Reports and Documents

Many bills die in committee, but if the bill is acted upon favorably by the committee, a committee report may be issued. A committee report describes the purpose and scope of the bill, explains the committee amendments, indicates any proposed changes in existing laws, and includes the texts of communications from departmental officials whose views on the legislation may have been solicited. The House and Senate Reports which accompany the bill reported out are first issued in slip form and have a two part numbering scheme (e.g., 108-23). The first number (108) indicates the Congress during which the report was issued; the second number is a sequential number which identifies a particular report. A bill is reported out of the committee when the chairman of the committee reintroduces it in the chamber along with the committee recommendations. Committee reports are the most persuasive legislative history sources. Reports are issued containing the revised bill, committee's recommendations and background information. Reports can also be issued as a result of investigations by Congress.

Once revised, a bill is brought again before the House or Senate for approval. The bill may then be referred to a conference committee to reconcile differences in similar bills in both Chambers. Conference committees are composed of members of both the Senate and the House. It has been common practice for committee reports to give instructions on how government agencies should interpret and enforce the law. Courts have relied on these guidelines in establishing intent.

Committee prints are reports or studies prepared for the use of a committee, often by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) or the General Accounting Office (GAO).

Senate and House Documents are usually communications from the Executive Branch. They can include reports of Executive Departments and Agencies, often submitted in accordance with Federal law. Senate Treaty Documents contain the texts of treaties submitted to the Senate by the President for ratification. Senate Executive Reports are reports of the Committee on Foreign Relations relating to treaties which have been submitted to the Senate for ratification. They can also be reports of various Senate Committees regarding the nomination of persons for Federal positions.

Sources of reports and documents

For historic reports see Congressional Sources and Indexes

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Floor Debates

The revised bill is brought before the House and Senate for debate and a vote. The bill can be amended on the floor. Debate on the floor of Congress is transcribed in the Congressional Record. The Congressional Record is not necessarily a word-for-word transcript of what is spoken on the floor. A member's remarks are presented to him or her for review and possible modification. Some speeches printed in the Congressional Record are never spoken on the floor at all. See About the Congressional Record from THOMAS.

Sources for the Congressional Record

For historic sources for debates see Congressional Debates.

Conference Reports

If the bill passes a chamber, it is sent to the other chamber, where it proceeds through a similar path (committee consideration followed by a debate and vote). If it passes both chambers, it goes to the President for signing and gets a Public Law number. If the first chamber does not accept the amended bill, a conference committee consisting of members of both chambers is appointed, and if they can agree to a compromise bill, they issue a conference report, which is then voted on in both chambers.

The conference report is a particularly important source of legislative history because it explains all conference committee compromises. Keep in mind it might discuss only those sections of a bill which are in controversy. It often includes a summary of the previous House and Senate provisions and therefore can be a good source of information on the history of a particular provision.

Sources for Conference Reports: see Reports.

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Congressional Votes

Members of both Chambers vote on the final version of the bill.

Sources for Congressional votes

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Presidential Actions

Throughout the legislative process, presidential messages may have been issued, conveying general recommendations or requesting passage of specific measures. A bill approved by both House and Senate is sent to the President. The President may comment on the bill and then sign or veto it. If he signs it, the bill becomes law. If he vetoes it, it may go back to Congress for redrafting or Congress may override the veto with a two-thirds majority vote in both Houses. If the President does not return the bill to Congress with his objections within 10 days, the bill automatically becomes a law. If Congress adjourns before the 10 day period, the bill is vetoed. (See also the Congressional Research Service's The Presidential Veto and Congressional Procedure ).

Sources for presidential statements

For historical sources see The Presidency: Official Papers and Speeches.

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Once signed by the President, laws are issued in printed form first as slip laws. Slip laws have a two part numbering scheme (e.g., P.L. 108-47). The first number (108) indicates the Congress during which the law was passed; the second number is a sequential number which identifies the law. These Public Laws are then bound into the Statutes at Large. Every six years, Public Laws are incorporated into the U.S. Code. Public Laws update the U.S. Code.

Sources for Laws

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Executive agencies draft detailed regulations which specify how the laws are to be carried out. New and proposed regulations are announced in the Federal Register. New regulations are incorporated into the Code of Federal Regulations which is an annual subject arrangement of regulations in force.

Sources for regulations

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