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U.S. Federal Documents: Legislative

Northwestern University Libraries have been a U.S. Federal Depository Library since 1876. Our collection includes materials in paper, microfiche, CD-ROM, DVD formats and online formats. This guide is based on a similar guide by Kelly Smith at UCSD.

Legislative Documents Reference

Please be aware that ProQuest Congressional (database for Congressional publications), HeinOnline (emphasis upon legal information), and U.S. Congressional Serial Set and the American State Papers from Readex are available remotely only to NUL affiliated users. Anyone may use these resources within the library, however. FDsys, LoC, Thomas, and Congress.gov are available online to all users. NUL also has print copies of many of these documents; use NUSearch to find call numbers and locations.

  FDsys       LoC Thomas    Congress.gov ProQuest    HeinOnline  Readex   
Bills 1993-         1799-1873 1973- 1973- 1789-    
Committee Prints       1991-       1789-    
Committee Reports 1995- 1833-1917 1995- 1995- 1789-   1817-1980
Congressional Record (& predecessors) 1994-   1989- 1995- 1789- 1774-  
Congressional Record Index 1983-            
Documents 1985- 1833-1917     1789-   1817-1980  
Hearings 1985-       1824-2003* 1927-   
Private Laws 1995-   1973-   1789-    
Public Laws 1995-   1973- 1973- 1789-    
Statutes at Large 1951- 1789-1875       1789-  
U.S. Code 1994-       current 1925-  
Voting Records     1989-   1987-    

* Plus citations/abstracts and selected testimony transcripts 2004-current.


The CIS microfiche collection (1970-2010) includes Committee and Subcommittee hearings and prints, House and Senate reports, documents, and special publications, Senate executive reports and documents, and public laws.  Searches in the ProQuest Congressional database will identify fiche numbers for specific publications.

To locate bills (1981-2001, 96th-107th Congress) in microfiche format, use the Final Cumulative Finding Aid, House and Senate Bills.

The legislative process can be quite complicated. Below is an abbreviated explanation of the route a bill takes on its way to becoming a law, noting the publications that contain relevant information for each piece of the puzzle.  This flowchart produced by the Government Printing Office (interactive image by Jenny Rensler uses Prezi) provides a visual overview of the legislative process.  These short videos are another way to learn about the stages of the legislative process.

Bills

A member of the House of Representatives or of the Senate may introduce a bill for consideration. The bill is first announced in the Congressional Record, where you can find the bill number, who introduced the bill, which committee the bill was referred to, and the stated intent of the bill. 

Hearings

The bill is then referred to a committee. If the committee decides not to consider the bill, or if the committee reports unfavorably on it, the bill dies. If the committee decides the bill has merit, they will hold hearings on the bill. Most hearings transcripts are published two months to two years after the hearings are held.

Reports

After hearings are held, a committee report that contains the revised bill, the committee's recommendations, and background information is issued.

Proceedings/Debates

If the committee recommends passage of the bill, it is then reported out to the full House or Senate for consideration (known as "floor action"). These proceedings and debates can be found in the Congressional Record, which is issued daily when Congress is in session. These daily issues of the Congressional Record are indexed in the Congressional Record Index (CRI), which consists of two parts: the index proper, which lists individuals, organizations, and topics mentioned in the Congressional Record, and the History of Bills, which lists legislative actions reported in the Congressional Record.

If the full chamber approves the bill (which usually, by this point, has gone through an amendment process), the bill will then be sent to the other chamber for consideration. The bill is again assigned to a committee, which will either table the bill (which effectually kills it) or release it to the full chamber for consideration and approval.

Voting Records

Members of both chambers then meet to work out any differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The revised bill is sent back to both houses for a vote. The text of a final bill that passes both houses is called the "enrolled" version. To determine whether a congressional member voted for or against a bill, go to the Roll Call Votes section of Thomas; UCSD users can also search the "Member Records" part of ProQuest Congressional to find vote reports.

Presidential Action

Once passed by Congress, the bill is then sent to the President. The President may sign the bill, veto it, or simply ignore it. If he signs it, the bill becomes a law. If he vetoes it, the bill may go back to Congress to be amended. Or, Congress may override the veto with a 2/3 majority vote. If the President simply ignores the bill (neither signs it nor vetoes it) and does not return it to Congress within 10 days, the bill becomes a law. If Congress adjourns before that 10-day period, the bill is automatically vetoed; this action is known as a “pocket veto”. The Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents and Public Papers of the Presidents are good sources to use to determine the President's action or inaction on a bill.

Public Law

Once the bill has become a law, it is assigned a "public law" number. If you have the bill number, you can easily find the public law number by browsing the "Public laws" section of Congress.gov. This page will then lead you to the text of the law and other relevant information pertaining to the law.  Note: There is also a separate category of "private bills" which, if passed, are assigned a "private law" number; these bills/laws pertain to an individual person or organization (including corporations), not to the general public

Published Laws

The first printing of the new law is called a "slip law". At the end of each session of Congress, slip laws are compiled into a set called Statutes at Large. Finally, public laws are incorporated every six years into the U.S. Code, which is a codification of all general and permanent laws of the United States. The U.S. Code is arranged by subject, and shows the present status of laws that have been amended.

Regulations

Congress is charged with the responsibility of enacting laws, as explained in the process above. Once a law is in effect, it is subject to rules and regulations written by federal agencies; these rules determine how the laws will be interpreted and applied. All newly-proposed regulations are announced in the Federal Register. Each issue of the Federal Register is organized into four categories:

Presidential Documents, including Executive orders and proclamations;

Rules and Regulations, including policy statements and interpretations of rules;

Proposed Rules, including petitions for rulemaking and other advance proposals; and

Notices, including scheduled hearings and meetings open to the public, grant applications, and administrative orders.

The rules published in the Federal Register are codified in an annual set called the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). The CFR is a subject arrangement of all regulations currently in force. The CFR is divided into 50 titles which represent broad areas subject to federal regulation. Each title is divided into chapters, which are assigned to the agencies that issue regulations pertaining to that subject area. Each chapter is divided into parts; each part is then divided into sections.

It is important to note that the CFR is updated by the daily Federal Register. These two publications must be used together to determine the latest version of any given rule. When a federal agency publishes a regulation in the Federal Register, that regulation usually is an amendment to the existing CFR in the form of a change, an addition, or a removal.

1st  1789-1790    39th  1865-1866    77th  1941-1942
 2nd  1791-1792    40th  1867-1868    78th  1943-1944
 3rd  1793-1794    41st  1869-1870    79th  1945-1946
 4th  1795-1796    42nd  1871-1872    80th  1947-1948
 5th  1797-1798    43rd  1873-1874    81st  1949-1950
 6th  1799-1800    44th  1875-1876    82nd  1951-1952
 7th  1801-1802    45th  1877-1878    83rd  1953-1954
 8th  1803-1804    46th  1879-1880    84th  1955-1956
 9th  1805-1806    47th  1881-1882    85th  1957-1958
 10th  1807-1808    48th  1883-1884    86th  1959-1960
 11th  1809-1810    49th  1885-1886    87th  1961-1962
 12th  1811-1812    50th  1887-1888     88th  1963-1964
 13th  1813-1814    51st  1889-1890    89th  1965-1966
 14th  1815-1816    52nd  1891-1892    90th  1967-1968
 15th  1817-1818    53rd  1893-1894    91st  1969-1970
 16th  1819-1820    54th  1895-1896    92nd  1971-1972
 17th  1821-1822    55th  1897-1898    93rd  1973-1974
 18th  1823-1824    56th  1899-1900    94th  1975-1976
 19th  1825-1826    57th  1901-1902    95th  1977-1978
 20th  1827-1828    58th  1903-1904    96th  1979-1980
 21st  1829-1830    59th  1905-1906    97th  1981-1982
 22nd  1831-1832    60th  1907-1908    98th  1983-1984
 23rd  1833-1834    61st  1909-1910    99th  1985-1986
 24th  1835-1836    62nd  1911-1912    100th  1987-1988
 25th  1837-1838    63rd  1913-1914    101st  1989-1990
 26th  1839-1840    64th  1915-1916    102nd  1991-1992
 27th  1841-1842    65th  1917-1918    103rd  1993-1994
 28th  1843-1844    66th  1919-1920    104th  1995-1996
 29th  1845-1846    67th  1921-1922    105th  1997-1998
 30th  1847-1848    68th  1923-1924    106th  1999-2000
 31st  1849-1850    69th  1925-1926    107th  2001-2002
 32nd  1851-1852    70th  1927-1928    108th  2003-2004
 33rd  1853-1854    71st  1929-1930    109th  2005-2006
 34th  1855-1856    72nd  1931-1932    110th  2007-2008
 35th  1857-1858    73rd  1933-1934    111th  2009-2010
 36th  1859-1860    74th  1935-1936    112th  2011-2012
 37th  1861-1862    75th  1937-1938    113th  2013-2014
 38th  1863-1864    76th  1939-1940    114th  2015-2016

 

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Track Current Legislation

These resources will help track current legislation by topics, bills, and/or members of Congress.

Research/CRS Reports

Research reports prepared for the Congress generallly provide excellent background information on the topic covered. Examples of these include Congressional Budget Office reports, Government Accountability Office reports, and Congressional committee prints.

Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports are non-partisan, high-quality research on timely issues. These reports are not routinely released beyond Congress, but several organizations have worked to make access to the documents more widely available. 

UCSD users should start with the ProQuest Congressional collection for CRS reports, which covers 1916-present.  Additional sources are listed below.