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To find information about a potential law, you have to understand how legislatures create them. A great resouces for this is How our Laws are Made by John V. Sullivan, Parlimentarian of the US House of Representatives. You can read the whole document at the Library of Congress's legislative information site called ThomasThe following is a summary of some key points, using the federal legislature as an example. State processes are similar.

The process starts when a bill is introduced in the House or Senate of the US Congress. "A bill originating in the House of Representatives is designated by 'H.R.' followed by a number that it retains throughout all its parliamentary stages. The letters signify 'House of Representatives' and not, as is sometimes incorrectly assumed, 'House resolution.' A Senate bill is designated by 'S.' followed by its number. The term 'companion bill' is used to describe a bill introduced in one House of Congress that is similar or identical to a bill introduced in the other House of Congress." (Sullivan, 2007, para. 8.)

For an example, we will follow S. 1111, the Beer Act, introduced on May 26, 2011 by Colorado Senator Mark Udall. To read the text of the bill, go to the Thomas website. Click on the "Advanced Search" link just below the search box. Next you have to select which 2-year congressional session to search. Use this Congress-to-Year table to find the appropriate session. You can also search across more than one session by clicking on that link at the top of the page. The table shows that 2011 falls in the 112th Congress. Choose "112" from the "Select Congress" list. Next choose to search by word/phrase or by bill number. We have the bill number so enter "s. 1111" in the search box. The Bill Status & Summary page appears. From here you can read the text of the bill, see its current status and sponsors, and see if the House has any related bills, among other options. This bill does have a companion bill in the House - H.R. 1675, Brewers Exise and Economic Relief Act of 2011. Both the Senate and the House bills have been referred to committees and remain in those committees' processes.

Committees will study a bill and may hold hearings in which to listen to testimony from witnesses or experts. Once finished with this process, committees vote to table the bill indefinitely or to approve and report the bill to the full House or Senate. A Committee Report with all of the committee's findings accompanies a reported bill.

If the House passes the bill, the Senate must repeat the process. If the Senate committee reports the bill to the whole Senate, that body will vote on the bill. Through more procedures and votes, both chambers must pass identical versions of the bill. Once done, the bill is "enrolled" and presented to the president who will either sign the bill into law or will veto it. If vetoed, the bill returns to the sponsoring chamber of Congress. They may overide the veto if two-thirds majority vote to do so.

Finding Bill Information

Using Thomas, look for bills by bill number, word/phrase, or by sponsor. Search for bills from the current Congress or past sessions, or examine records of votes. The site has links in the center column for contacting legislators and visiting state legislature sites.

Reports of Legislative Sessions

The Congressional Record is the daily record of the debates and actions taken in Congress. It is searchable on Thomas back to 2009, here.

Congressional Committees

  • The Senate Committees website allows you to search for committee memberships by committee and by senator. You can also search for hearings information.

  • The House of Representatives Committees website shows the House's committees, and when you follow any committee's link you go to a full webpage about that committee. You can see membership, initiatives, and information on hearings.

Schoolhouse Rock - "I'm Just a Bill"

Remember poor Bill, who hopes and prays he gets to be a law?

I'm Just a Bill

US House session April 27, 2012

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