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The Legislative Process

This guide provides information about the many resources available on the American legislative branch, the United States Congress and its members.

Assistant Professor & Government Publications Librarian

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Elizabeth Brown

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Historically, Legislative process and legislative history are synonymously used phrases which describe how bill becomes a law.  The documents produced from this process are tracked through Congress and are used by lawyers and policy analysts to determine Congressional intent or clarify vague language or ambiguous purpose especially when the legal authority is questioned. The Library of Congress created a video to explain the process. The Parliamentarian of the House of Representatives, Charles W. Johnson, wrote an extensive and detailed analysis of this process entitled How are Laws are Made.

The Government Publishing Office also has a wonderful poster outlining the steps of how a bill becomes a law

One place you may always receive help with any government information research is Government Information Online (GIO) where librarians across the United States will assist you.

Types of Legislative Documents

There are several different kinds of publications in the legislative process.  Almost all of these are available electronically today and historically in print form at your local federal depository library of which, Brooks Library serves as the depository for Central Washington.

Most of these publications can be found at through the Government Publishing Office as well as at the basic Congressional web site 

1.  Bills which are identified by their number:  H.R. number or S. number - bills provided the language of the proposed legislation.  They are sent to committees where similar bills are brought together, marked up, and resolved to a single bill.

Please note, members of Congress may also introduce Resolutions in addition to bills.  Resolutions have the enforcement of bills, but are typically used for internal, nonbinding public policy statements.

2.  Hearings are held about the proposed legislation.  Testimony is given by experts to members of the committees. 

3. Reports are from the committees and/or subcommittees to the full chamber.  These reports usually include the full text of the final bill, the bill's purpose is described, the rest of the chamber is informed what the committee members learned from the hearings as well as their rationales for making their recommendations, and if there are any differences between bills, they are discussed in the report.  Frequently, a section-by-section analysis provided.

When a conference committee was appointed, then a report of the conference is issued to explain the compromise bill. These reports are especially important as they come at the end of the legislative process.

4. Debates are found in the Congressional Record which is published in a daily edition and a bound edition.  The Daily edition has three sections: S, for Senate; H, for House; and E, for Extension of Remarks.  The bound edition was last distributed in 2006.

The Law Librarians' Society of Washington D.C. put together a site to show all the different places where you may find online versions of the Congressional Record. 

5.  The Clerk of the Senate has a handy table of the Sessions of Congress available.

6. Once the debates are completed and the votes are done, and should the bill be sent along to the President for signature, then a new publication is issued, a law.  It is first issued as a slip law, then as a Statute.  A compilation of slip laws bound together becomes the Statutes at Large

Docs Reference 3rd Floor KF50 A2. 

Once they are broken into broad subjects or codified, a new title known at the U.S.Code is produced. Docs Reference 3rd Floor KF62 2012

Additionally, any member of Congress may request background or research on any topic.  This work is done by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a unit within the Library of Congress.  Last year, these reports created by the CRS were finally made public.  The Government Publishing Office (GPO) is working with the Library of Congress to digitize these reports and make them accessible to the public.  Please contact the Government Publications Librarian for further assistance.

Resources & Databases

Key Resources

Selected tutorials