Skip to Main Content

Legislative History: A Guide to Library Research

How a Bill Becomes a Law

To obtain background information for a basic legislative history, there are a finite collection of documents that must be identified. These include such documents as:

  • Introduced Bill
  • Committee Prints
  • Hearings
  • Committee Reports
  • Markups, Debates, Votes
  • Enrolled Bill
  • Public Laws
  • Presidential Statements

Not all bills will generate all of the above documents. Some will generate multiple copies of a few documents. Some may generate documentation beyond the Legislative Branch of the government. In general, this set will give you a basis upon which to build your legislative history.

The route to the final goal -- the creation of a new Public Law (also called a Statute) -- is complicated and may create several of the above documents as the new bill proceeds on its way through congress. The basic life cycle of a bill looks (at its most basic) like this:

House --> HR # assigned, debates --> Sent to committee --> Sent back to House floor for debate & vote --> Sent to Senate.

Senate --> S # assigned, debates --> Sent to committee --> Sent back to Senate floor for debate & vote --> Sent to House.

After a bill is passed by both houses of Congress, it -- the enrolled bill -- is sent to the President.

The President has 10 days after receiving a bill passed by Congress to act:

  • The President may veto the bill.
    • A 2/3 majority of each house may vote to override any presidential veto, making the bill a new Public Law without presidential approval.)
  • IF Congress is within 10 days of the end of it's current session, and the President does nothing, the bill automatically dies.
    • This practice is commonly referred to as a pocket veto.
  • If the President ignores a bill for over 10 days when Congress is IN session, the bill automatically becomes a Public Law without presidential approval.
  • The President may sign the bill, creating a new Public Law

After a bill is signed into law, it is given a unique ID number. The first two letters of this number are PL (for Public Law). The next set of numbers indicates the session of Congress during which the bill became law. The final set of numbers is a sequential number of all new public laws created during that particular session of Congress. For a bill which became the 232nd law during the 94th session of congress, the full identification number would be: PL-94-232.

After the new law receives its ID number and is printed as an individual "Slip Law" for distribution, it is then printed within the official volumes of all laws of the United States, called Statutes at Large.

The citation for Statutes designates which volume of Statutes at Large the law is found, followed by the title of the laws as "STAT," and lastly includes the page number where the printed version of the law is found within the volume. A citation for a law printed in volume 74 of Statutes at Large and beginning on page 1273 would read as follows: 74 STAT 1273.

As most people do not refer to laws by the PL number during normal conversation, most laws are also given a popular name. The popular name may include the word "Act," and may also include the date this act became a law. Popular names are useful in locating more specific information about a law.

Bill to Law Life Cycle Flow Charts

Bill to Law Life Cycle -- Text Explanations

Legislative Histories, Explanations, Sources, Tips

Manuals, Guides, Compiled Reports

Citing Government Documents

For information on how to cite government documents, use the Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation: