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U.S. Federal Documents

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.

Search Congressional Actions & Publications

Track current legislation by topics, bills, and/or members of the U.S. Congress.

Congressional Publications and Actions

Research/CRS Reports

Research reports prepared for Congress provide excellent background information on the topic covered. Examples of agencies that produce reports include the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Research Service.

Congressional Research Service (CRS)

Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports are non-partisan, high-quality research on timely issues. Prior to passage of P.L.115-141 (03/23/2018) these reports are not routinely released beyond Congress and several organizations worked to make access to the documents more widely available.  What follows are links to several sources for CRS reports in digital format.

Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report Repositories

Legislative Process: A Bill Becomes A Law

The legislative process can be quite complicated. Below is an abbreviated explanation, along with a couple of visual summaries and a video, 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. 

Another 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.


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. 


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.


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


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 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.


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.

Types of Legislative Documents: Access by Format

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 when visiting the library.  However., Library of Congress (LoC) website, and shown in the table below are available online to all users. NUL also has print copies of many of these documents; use NUSearch to find call numbers and locations.

   Open to All Open to All     Open to All NU Only NU Only NU Only     LoC  ProQuest     HeinOnline  Readex   
 Bills 1993-94 / 103rd to present   1799-1873 House;  1819-1873 Senate; 1823-1873 Joint Resolutions  

 66th 1919 - present;


 1776 - present    
1975-76 94th; 1989-90 101st to present      116th  2019 - present (some older)  1789 -  (see Miscellaneous Publications in Advanced Search)    
1995-96 / 104th to present  1833-1917 within Serial Set    104th 1995 - present  1817 - present  (see H / S Documents Reports in Advanced Search)    1817-1980

 Record (Bound)


 1789 - 2009 Bound (includes predecessor titles Congressional Globe 1833-1873); Register of Debates in Congress (1824 - 1837); Annals of Congress (1789 - 1824)

 Daily edition  1985? - present

 Record Index
 (Daily Ed.)
1983-      104th 1995 - present      
 Cong Committee
 1851-54 32-33rd; 1975/6 94th, 1979/80 96th,  1985-6 99th to present 1833-1917 within Serial Set     Treaty Documents  1817 - present    1817-1980  
 Hearings 1957-8 85th to present (select)        1824-2010*    1927-   
 Private Laws 1995-6  104th to present        1789 - present    
 Public Laws 1995-6  104th to present      82nd  1951 - present  1789 - present    
 Statutes at
1951-2013  82nd - 113th 1st session  1789-1875, volumes 1-18        1789-  
 U.S. Code 1994-present          1925-  
 Voting Records        Roll Call Votes 1989  101st - present  1987 - present    

* Plus citations/abstracts and selected testimony transcripts 2011-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 or via the HathiTrust Digital Repository, use the Final Cumulative Finding Aid, House and Senate Bills.

Congress & Support Offices

Social Media

Congress to Year Conversion Chart

congress (i.e., 2-year time-frame)

When referring to a time-period (e.g., the 114th Congress which convened on January 6, 2015) rather than the legislative branch generally, a Congress is the national legislature in office (for approximately two years). It begins with the convening of a new Congress comprised of members elected in the most-recent election and ends with the adjournment sine die of the legislature (typically after a new election has occurred).

Source: Glossary of Legislative Terms,

 1st  1789-1790    39th  1865-1866    77th  1941-1942  115th  2017-2018
 2nd  1791-1792    40th  1867-1868    78th  1943-1944  116th  2019-2020
 3rd  1793-1794    41st  1869-1870    79th  1945-1946  117th  2021-2022
 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