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Federal Legislative History Research

A how to guide for pinpointing congressional documents to help determine legislative intent

What Happens After a Bill is Passed?

Bills that are passed by Congress and signed by the President can be found through several different methods, each with its own numbering system you can use to identify a specific law.

Bill Numbers

When a bill is introduced by a sponsor, the clerk of the House or Senate assigns a bill number (sometimes called a “legislative number”). The first number indicates the Congress in which the bill was introduced and the second number is the chronological number of the bill in that session. House bills use H.R.; Senate bills use S. For instance, the number 104 H.R. 3103 means that this was the 3103rd bill introduced in the House in the 104th Congress.

Public Laws

Once a bill has been signed by the President, it becomes law. This new law is first assigned a “Public Law Number.” The public law number simply indicates the order in which that law was passed within a given session. For instance, HIPAA (104 H.R. 3103), cited above, became the 191st law passed during the 104th Congress, so its public law number is P.L. 104-191.

  • At this point, we now have two ways of identifying our law:
    • As the 3103rd House bill introduced in the 104th Congress, 104 H.R. 3013.
    • As the 191st public law passed in the 104th Congress, P.L. 104-191.

Statutes at Large

  • After the public law number is assigned, the Government Printing Office prints out the law in a pamphlet called a “slip law” (referring to the fact they’re printed on slips of paper). The slip laws are marked with the assigned Public Law number.
  • Over the course of a Congressional session, all of the slip laws that passed during that session start to pile up (picture a stack of accumulating pamphlets; each of the pamphlets reflects one law that has passed). At the end of each Congressional session, all the individual pamphlets from a given session are collected into hard copy volumes called the United States Statutes at Large.
  • Because this print volume set is published by session, the laws printed in it are called session laws. Unfortunately, the Statutes at Large volume numbers do not correspond to the congressional session or year numbers. For instance, Volume 110 of the Statutes at Large contains the laws passed during the 104th Congress, in the second session in 1996.
  • Session laws are printed in the Statutes at Large in the same order in which they were passed. Citations to a public law in the Statutes at Large, then, include the first page number on which the public law appears and likewise do not correspond to either the year or Congressional session in which the public law was passed.
    • For instance, the Statutes at Large number for HIPAA is 110 Stat. 1936, meaning you will find this law printed in volume 110 of the Statutes at Large, beginning on page 1936.
  • At this point, we now have three ways to find the very same text:
    • by the bill number or legislative citation, 104 HR 3013;
    • by its public law number, P.L. 104-191; or
    • by its Statute at Large number, 110 Stat. 1936.

United States Code

  • To understand codification, it helps to know that the U.S. Code is arranged by topic within 54 titles. For instance, laws dealing generally with Public Health and Welfare will be codified in Title 42. The Office of Law Revision Counsel is the entity responsible for preparing and publishing the U.S. Code, and making sure it is up-to‐date.
  • Often (but not always), the public laws that are passed will prescribe that changes be made to the U.S. Code. For instance, you might have a Public Law that states that a new paragraph should be added to 42 U.S.C. § 1309. So, the Office of Law Revision Counsel edits the Code to make sure that the text of the new paragraph gets added to § 1309 as prescribed by the public law. This process is called “codification.”
    • The public law might not mention a specific code section. In that case, the Office of Law Revision Counsel will determine where it best fits in the subject organization of the U.S. Code.
  • Because an enacted statute can have numerous (sometimes thousands) of sections dealing with different topics, a single statute may be codified in separate titles or parts of the U.S. Code. For example, the portions of HIPAA (P.L. 104‐191) concerning public health and welfare were codified in several places within Title 42 of the U.S. Code—some portions at Section 300gg of Title 42, and others at Section 1320d of Title 42.
  • At this point, we now have four ways to find the very same text:
    • by the bill number or legislative citation, 104 HR 3013;
    • by the public law number, P.L. 104-191; o by the Statutes at Large number, 110 Stat. 1936;
    • by its various U.S.C. citations, such as 42 U.S.C. § 300gg and 42 U.S.C. § 1320d.