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Legislative History Research: A Guide

Basic research tools for tracking the progress of bills, hearings, and other legislative steps in the United States federal government.

How a Bill Becomes a Law

A bill is the basic legal form of legislation. How a bill becomes a law is rather complicated, therefore in the following information provided focus on the most  basic, important steps of the process. You may link below to resources containing the documents produced during each step, or go directly to resources through the above tabs. For more in-depth explanations of how are laws are made, try the following resources:


Drafting of Bill


 

Preliminary actions
  • The idea for a bill may be proposed by a Congressman, Senator, or any individual citizen or group of citizens.
  • In some cases preliminary hearings are held on the issues concerning the necessity for proposing the legislation.
  • The idea for legislation often originates with the President of the United States in the form of an "executive communication." Executive communications often follow on the President's message to Congress in the State of the Union.

Find presidential messages & executive communications.

Find hearings.

Find State of the Union addresses.


Introduction of Bill

 

 

 

 

Introduction of bill in the House and /or Senate
While the idea for a bill may be proposed by any individual citizen or group of citizens, only a member of Congress can introduce a bill. Important things to know when looking for bills:

  • The Congressman who introduces the bill is referred to as the "sponsor".

  • The Congressmen who support the bill are called "co-sponsors".
  • After a bill is introduced it is assigned a sequential number.
  • Bills get new numbers with each new Congress, however the same bill may be introduced in either or both House and Senate.
  • There are four types of House and Senate bills with specific number designations.
Bill "H.R." "S."
Joint Resolution "H. J. Res." "S. J. Res."
Concurrent Resolution "H.Con Res." "S. Con. Res."
Simple Resolution "H. Res." "S. Res."

Find bill texts and amendments.


Committee Action

 

 

Bill is referred to committee(s) and/or subcommittees
A bill is referred to the appropriate committee for action and review. The bill is either handled at this level or referred bill to a subcommittee. If the committee does not act on a bill, it "dies." The most important part of the legislative process is the action taken by committees.

Hearings 

  • If a bill is considered important or high-profile, hearings are conducted.
  • Hearings will contain testimony (written and oral) of witnesses. Witnesses may include administrative officials, bill supporters and opponents, subject experts, public interest groups, and other people affected by the legislation.
  • Transcripts of hearings are published individually and are referred to by title.
  • Keep in mind that hearings are not held for most bills.

Find transcripts of hearings


Committee Action
Bill voted /reported out of committee

Bill Markup 

  •  A commitee will "mark-up" the bill (debate, amend, and rewrite proposed legislation) so that it passes on the floor.
  • If significant amounts of changes are made to the bill, a new "clean bill" may be produced and the old bill discarded. This bill will be given a new number. So it is possible to have multiple bills for a law.

Committee Reports

  • After mark-up, the committee receives the subcommittee's report, and the full committee votes on its recommendation to the House or Senate.
  • If committee members approve and report the bill out of the committee, a "committee report" is issued. The bill also must pass through the House Rules Committee.
  • Reports are widely used to determine the bill’s intent and meaning.
  • A legislative history of the bill is often included in the committee report, as is a section-by-section analysis of the bill.
  • Committee reports are considered to be the most important documents of legislative history research.
  • Committee members who oppose a bill sometimes write a dissenting opinion in the report.

Find committee reports


Floor Action
Committee orders the bill "reported" back to the House of origin

Bill Placed on Calendar

After a bill is reported out of committee and back to the House, it is placed on the House (or Senate) calendar: There are four House calendars:

  1. Union Calendar
  2. House Calendar
  3. Private Calendar
  4. Discharge Calendar

There is one Senate calendar. These calendars are compiled in one publication called Calendars of the United States House of Representatives and History of Legislation.

View Calendars of the U.S. House of Representatives


Debates

  • The bill is sent to the floor of the House or Senate for debate.
  • The Rules Committee determines the length of the debate.
  • Non-controversial bills often skip this procedure and are considered under 'Supension of the Rules'.

Find legislative debates.


Voting/ passage of bill (in the first house)

  • After the debates and the approval of any amendments, the bill is passed or defeated by the members voting.
  • If the bill is passed it is introduced in the other House and the process is repeated.

Find voting records.


Conference Action
Bill Referred to Conference Committee (if House & Senate Bills Differ)

  • If the House and Senate publish different versions of the bill, a Conference Committee with members from both the House and Senate is formed to work out the differences. Once this is accomplished, a Conference report is produced by the Committee.
  • Conference reports are considered to be extremely important documents for legislative history research!

Find conference committee reports.


Presidential Action
Bill is passed by House and Senate ("enrolled")


Once the bill and its amendments have been officially passed by both houses ("enrolled") the following things can occur:

  • The President signs the bill.
  • The President can include a "signing statement."
  • The President can VETO the bill.
  • The President can "not act" on the bill. (If congress is in session the bill becomes law after 10 days/ If Congress is not in session, the bill dies after 10 days (called a POCKET VETO).

Read about the Presidential Veto & Congressional Procedure.


Final Action

 

 

Bill becomes a law
The bill is officially a law and given a Public Law number.
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