The Legislative Process: Government Resources

Page structure

The government resources here are structured to follow the stages of how a bill is passed: bill introduction, committee action, debate and action by Congress, Congressional votes, Presidential action, and laws issued.

Bill Introduction

A good general overview of the legislative process is available at Congress.gov, which is "the official website for U.S. federal legislative information. The site provides access to accurate, timely, and complete legislative information for Members of Congress, legislative agencies, and the public. It is presented by the Library of Congress (LOC) using data from the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Office of the Secretary of the Senate, the Government Publishing Office, Congressional Budget Office, and the LOC's Congressional Research Service."

Bill Introduction -

Members of the House or Senate introduce bills for consideration by the Congress. The President, a member of the Cabinet or head of a Federal agency can also propose legislation. Most often, proposed bills go directly to a Congressional committee for discussion, revision and recommendations.

Definitions of the different types of bills and legislation are explained at About Congressional Bills at FDsys. 

Texts of bills, legislative history of bills, information tracking the progress of bills through Congress, and links to laws that have been enacted (Public Laws or Statutes at Large) can be found through different database resources (paid and free).

           Best for:

  • Texts of bills from the 93rd Congress (1973) to present (with faceted searching)
  • Testimony in Congress relating to bills

            Best for:

  • Texts and tracking of actions on bills from the 109th Congress (2005/06) to the present
  • FDsys (U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO))

Best for:          Searches across all government publications by faceted search; can retrieve bills, testimony, and agency rule-making documentation in the Federal Register, as well as Congressional calendars that show actions in House and Senate from 104th Congress (1996/97) to present.

  • THOMAS (Library of Congress)(in process of being replaced by Congress.gov)

           Best for:

  • Bill summary & status from the 93rd Congress (1973/74) to the present.  Use advanced search to specify year, member of Congress, Committees, stage of bill in legislative process. Tracks actions on bill
  • Bill Text for the 101st Congress (1989) to the present

           Best for:

  • House Bills and Resolutions (incomplete)from the 6th to the 42nd Congress (1799/1800 to 1871/1873)
  • Senate Bills and Resolutions from the 16th to the 42nd Congress (1819/20 to 1871/73)
  • Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention (1774-1799)

Committee Action

A Bill is debated on the floor and then sent to committee(s) for revisions. Once revised, a bill is brought again before the House or Senate for approval. The bill may then be referred to a conference committee composed of members of both the Senate and the House to reconcile differences in similar bills in both Chambers.

Hearings are held, with testimony from interested parties

Prints are hearing charters, and reports or studies prepared for the use of a committee, often by the Congressional Research Service (CRS)

Reports Congressional reports originate from congressional committees and deal with proposed legislation and issues under investigation. 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.

Documents (Senate & House) are usually communications from the President or the Executive Branch departments and agencies. They can include reports of Executive Departments and Agencies, often submitted in accordance with Federal law.

  • House of Representatives Committee Offices and Schedule
  • Senate Committees
  • The Daily Digest of Senate and House Activities (FDsys)
  • CQ Committee Coverage and Schedules (Congressional Quarterly)
  • Quick Links to Congressional Publications (Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C.)
    For each Congressional committee, links to relevant material: Hearing List, News, Publications, Schedule, Search, Testimony, Transcripts, Visual/Audio; generally, 105th Congress (1997/98) to the present
  • Congressional Hearings (FDsys)
    A limited number of Congressional hearings (fewer for earlier years) are available via FDsys, from the 99th Congress (1985/86) to the present. Not all congressional hearings are available on FDsys. Whether or not a hearing is disseminated on FDsys depends on the committee. See also ProQuest, which has more hearing transcripts.
  • Congressional Hearings and Committee Prints  and House and Senate Documents and Reports (ProQuest Congressional)
    Hearings (1824-present), prints (1817-present), CRS Reports (1916-present) and other Congressional publications.
  • Video and audio coverage of Congressional meetings and hearings can be accessed at congress.gov through links to each committee, or at the website of the committee.  Webcasts are also available from FedNet, which describes itself as “a credentialed new organization and the leading provider of Multimedia broadcast of the United States Congress” (Live current proceedings and archives back to 2003) and from C-SPAN’s CapitolHearings.org (Streaming audio of some in-progress Senate hearings).
  • Congressional Documents (FDsys)
    Selected documents from the 94th Congress (1975/76) to the present.
  • Congressional Reports (FDsys)
    Selected reports from the 104th Congress (1995/96) to the present.
  • Committee Reports (Thomas)
    For the 104th Congress (1995/96) to the present
  • House and Senate Committee home pages are additional sources of legislative information.

 

Debate and Action by Congress

The revised bill is brought before the House and Senate for approval. Debate on the floor of Congress is transcribed verbatim in the Congressional Record and can be watched live and archived by video feed. 

Specific terminology is used to describe the different versions of a bill as its status changes during the legislative process, like: introduced, agreed to, enrolled, engrossed, laid on table, received, referred, etc.

The Congressional Record began publication in 1873 (43rd Congress) and is published daily by the Government Publishing Office.  A permanent copy is bound at the end of the session. Note that the page numbering is different between the daily and the bound versions. Numerous sources include:

Congressional Votes

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

  • Roll call votes
    • Congress.gov – Roll call votes from 101st Congress (1989/90) to the present
    • Govtrack.us – Non-commercial, non-partisan community and open source project.  Allows users to set up monitors, news feeds and RSS feeds
    • OpenCongress.org – – Previously part of the Sunlight Foundation, now its own non-profit. Includes tools for visualization of date like head-to-head voting comparisons of members of Congress
    • C-SPAN – Allows filtering and provides links to video coverage of votes
    • Congressional Votes (ProQuest Congressional)
      By member and bill number from the 99th Congress (1985/86) to present. Can be downloaded in spreadsheet form.
    • Clerk of the House – Maintains records of votes in the House from the 101st Congress (1989/90) to the present, chronologically by Roll Call number Clerk of the Senate – Maintains records of votes in the Senate from the 101st Congress (1989/90) to the present, chronologically by Roll Call number.
    • Congressional Quarterly Congress Collection Advanced CQ Key Vote Analysis
    • THOMAS Roll Call Votes

Consult the Congressional Voting Records section of the Legislative Resources web page for more sources, both print and online.
 

Presidential Action

A bill approved by both House & Senate is sent to the President. The President may comment on the bill (a signing statement or veto message) and then sign or veto it. If the President signs it, the bill becomes law.  If the President does not return the bill to Congress with any objections noted within 10 days, the bill automatically becomes a law. If Congress adjourns before the 10 day period, the bill is vetoed (this is called a pocket veto).

If the President vetoes the bill, it may go back to Congress for redrafting, or Congress may vote on whether to override the veto with a two-thirds majority vote in both Houses.

Presidential signing statements are used by Presidents to comment on the law being signed. The use of signing statements began in the early 19th century and has increased recently.  Such comments can include giving the President's interpretation of the meaning of the law's language; asserting objections to certain provisions of the law on constitutional grounds; and stating the President's intent regarding how the President intends to execute, or carry out, the law, including giving guidance to executive branch personnel.  However, regardless of the President’s comments, if a bill is signed it is the law.

Bill signings are recorded in the Compilation of Presidential Documents, published weekly 1976-2008, and daily 2009-present.

  • The Compilation of Presidential Documents
    • FDsys (includes Executive Orders, Acts Approved, Acts Vetoed, Press Releases and more from 1993 to the present)
    • HeinOnline – Daily Compilation 2009-05, Weekly Compilation 1965-2009, by date

Other Resources

Laws Issued

Once signed by the President, laws are given public law numbers and issued in printed form, first as slip laws. 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.

Edited

Page edited and updated by Julia Robbins, September 2015.