The Legislative Process


This guide traces the process by which a bill becomes a law in the United States. The process begins with the bill's introduction in Congress and ends with its codification into U.S. law. Print or microfiche sources and links to full text Internet sources for documents produced in each step of the process are provided below. Full descriptions of the main internet sites which contain legislative materials are provided, along with links to other sites which describe the legislative process in more detail.

The call number for print sources is given. Most of the items included are available in Lehman Library.

Resources marked with this symbol are restricted to Columbia affiliates.

Bill Introduction

Members of the House or Senate introduce bills for consideration by the Congress. The President, a member of the Cabinet or head of a Federal agency can also propose legislation.

Print Version

  • Congressional Bills & Resolutions 1939-1972
    328.732 L - Butler
  • Congressional Bills & Resolutions 1983-2000
    Y 1.4/1: Law microfiche
  • Calendars of the U.S. House of Representatives and History of Legislation
    Y 1.2/2: - Offsite

Internet Version

Committee Action

A Bill is debated on the floor and then sent to committee(s) for revisions. Hearings are held, with testimony from interested parties; Prints are reports or studies prepared for the use of a committee, often by the Congressional Research Service (CRS); and Reports are issued containing the revised bill, committee's recommendations and background information. Reports can also be issued as a result of investigations by Congress.

Once revised, a bill is brought again before the House or Senate for approval. The bill may then be referred to a conference committee to reconcile differences in similar bills in both Chambers. Conference committees are composed of members of both the Senate and the House.

Documents (Senate & House) are usually communications from the Executive Branch. They can include reports of Executive Departments and Agencies, often submitted in accordance with Federal law.

Senate Treaty Documents contain the texts of treaties submitted to the Senate by the President for ratification.

Senate Executive Reports are reports of the Committee on Foreign Relations relating to treaties which have been submitted to the Senate for ratification. They can also be reports of various Senate Committees regarding the nomination of persons for Federal positions.

Print Version

  • House & Senate Committee Hearings
    • Through 1975
      Printed hearings are located in Butler Library -- ask Butler Reference for assistance.
    • 1976-present
      Y 4.: US GovDocs microfiche
    • 1976-1981
      Lehman CIS microfiche
  • House & Senate Committee Prints, 1976-present
    Y 4.
    : US GovDocs microfiche
  • Senate Documents, 1976-present
    Y 1.1/3: US GovDocs microfiche
    328.734 - Offsite
  • Senate Treaty Documents, 1976-present
    Y 1.1/4: US GovDocs microfiche
  • Senate Reports, 1976-present
    Y 1.1/5: US GovDocs microfiche
    328.734 - Offsite
  • Senate Executive Reports, 1976-present
    Y 1.1/6: US GovDocs microfiche
  • House Documents, 1976-present
    Y 1.1/7: US GovDocs microfiche
    328.734 - Offsite
  • House Reports, 1976-present
    Y 1.1/8: US GovDocs microfiche
    328.734 - Offsite

Internet Version

Floor Action

The revised bill is brought before the House and Senate for approval. Debate on the floor of Congress is transcribed in the Congressional Record.

Specific terminology is used to describe the different versions of a bill as its status changes during the legislative process. For example: introduced, agreed to, enrolled, engrossed, laid on table, received, referred, etc. All these and more are explained in the Congressional Bills: Glossary section of FDsys.

Print Version

  • Congressional Record
    No current print version available
  • Congressional Record
    • 1873-1981
      328.732 E - Butler
    • 1981-1996
      KF 35 .U5 - Butler

Internet Version

Congressional Votes

Members of both Chambers vote on the final version of the bill.

Consult the Congressional Voting Records section of the Legislative Resources web page for more sources, both print and online.

Print Version

  • Congressional Record
    Current print version not available
  • Congressional Record
    • 1873-1981
      328.732 E - Butler
    • 1981-1996
      KF 35 .U5 - Butler
  • Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report
    JK 1 .C15 - Lehman
    Current issues in Reference
  • Congressional Roll Call
    JK 1 .C6635 - Lehman
    Current volume in Reference

Internet Version

Presidential Action

A bill approved by both House & Senate is sent to the President. The President may comment on the bill and then sign or veto it. If he signs it, the bill becomes law. If he vetoes it, it may go back to Congress for redrafting or Congress may override the veto with a two-thirds majority vote in both Houses. If the President does not return the bill to Congress with his objections within 10 days, the bill automatically becomes a law. If Congress adjourns before the 10 day period, the bill is vetoed (pocket veto). Bill signings are recorded in the Compilation of Presidential Documents, published weekly 1976-2008, and daily 2009-present.

Print Version

  • Federal Register
    No current print issues available
  • Federal Register
    • 1950-1983
      AA 158 - Law microfilm
    • 1986-present
      S A.3 F33 - Law microfiche
  • Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents
    • 1965-1976
      J 80 .A284 - Butler
    • 1976-2000
      AE 2.109: - Offsite
  • Public Papers of the Presidents
    J 80 .A2831 - Butler

Internet Version

Laws Issued

Once signed by the President, laws are given public law numbers and issued in printed form first as slip laws. These Public Laws are then bound into the Statutes at Large. Every six years, Public Laws are incorporated into the U.S. Code. Public Laws update the U.S. Code.

Print Version

  • Slip Laws
    AE 2.110: - No current print issues available
  • U.S. Statutes at Large, 1976-present
    AE 2.111: - Offsite
  • U.S. Statutes at Large, 1789-present
    S A.2 - Law
  • U.S. Code
    Law Library

Internet Version

Regulations Issued

Executive agencies draft detailed regulations which specify how the laws are to be carried out. New and proposed regulations are announced in the Federal Register. New regulations are incorporated into the Code of Federal Regulations which is an annual subject arrangement of regulations in force.

In April and October of each year, the Unified Agenda is published, which summarizes the rules and proposed rules that each agency expects to issue during the following 12 months.

Print Version

  • Federal Register
    No current print issues available
  • Federal Register
    • 1950-1983
      AA 158 - Law microfilm
    • 1986-present
      S A.3 F33 - Law microfiche
  • Code of Federal Regulations
    AE 2.106/3: - No current print issues available; current year only
  • Code of Federal Regulations, 1938-present
    S A.3 C642 - Law microfiche

Internet Version

Online Resources for Legislative Materials

The following websites contain significant amounts of legislative materials.

  • CQ.com
    CQ.com is a compehensive, current legislative information system, provided by Congressional Quarterly.
  • CQ Electronic Library
    CQ Electronic Library provides the full text of CQ Press reference publications, including the CQ Almanac and the Historic Documents Series.
  • FDsys: Federal Digital System
    FDsys is the official U.S. government archive for electronic Congressional publications. The depth of the archive varies by collection, but Congressional materials are generally available from the 104th Congress (1995/1996) forward.
  • Hein Online
    Hein Online is a portal to full text legal materials online. It includes the Code of Federal Regulations, the Federal Register, Statutes at Large, U.S. Attorney General Opinions, the Congressional Record, Messages and Papers of the Presidents, Public Papers of the Presidents, and many other executive agency and Congressional documents. In general, coverage is complete, with some exceptions.
  • ProQuest Congressional
    ProQuest Congressional is the most comprehensive online resource available for congressional publications and legislative research. Included are: Committee Hearings, Committee Prints, Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports, House and Senate Documents, House and Senate Reports, Senate Executive Reports, Senate Executive Treaty Documents, Legislative Histories (1970-present), Statutes at Large, the Serial Set and Serial Set Maps. Most of the content is full text.
  • ProQuest Legislative Insight
    Proquest Legislative Insight is a federal legislative history service that makes available thoroughly researched compilations of digital full-text publications relevant to enacted U.S. public laws. These include the full text of the public law itself, all versions of related bills, law-specific Congressional Record excerpts, committee hearings, reports, and prints. Also included are presidential signing statements, CRS reports and miscellaneous congressional publications that provide background material to aid in the understanding of issues related to the making of the law.
    Eventually, ProQuest Legislative Insight will provide legislative histories for all public laws from the 71st Congress (1929) to the present.
  • Thomas: Legislative Information on the Internet
    Thomas is the official web site for the U.S. Congress, with links to bills, public laws, the Congressional Record, roll call votes, and committee information.

Guides to the Legislative Process

The legislative process can be a complicated one, with several versions of a bill in both houses, committee hearings, floor debate, reports, and floor votes all along the way. The process sometimes results in law, often not. For more detailed information, consult:


The format for this page was adapted from one created by Maryann Readal, Documents Librarian, North Harris College, Houston, TX.