The Legislative Process: Background Information
Related Topics:
The Legislative Process: How a Bill Becomes Law
About Bills, Resolutions, and Laws
Congressional Session Dates

General Background

Congress is made up of 535 men and women (100 Senators and 435 Representatives), each performing a delicate balancing act between the needs and demands of their constituents, their political parties, their contributors, their staffs, the Administration, and even each other. These often conflicting demands can simultaneously pull members of Congress in dozens of different directions on any one issue. It is against this background that legislative process, or the passage of a bill into law, occurs in the two Chambers of Congress.

Congress is collegial, not hierarchical, and power and influence in administration decision making tend to flow in all directions. Although the How a Bill Becomes Law chart is useful in understanding the general legislative process, it is not a defined roadmap. Since no two bills ever follow exactly the same path to enactment, you always have to rethink the chart with every bill you research, keeping in mind the parliamentary and political maneuvering that can occur anywhere in the process.

Publication Numbering System

To understand how the publications you locate in your research fit into the legislative process, you need to know a few of the more important identifying characteristics of the publications you may encounter along the way. Congressional publications have an identification system made up of three distinct pieces of information:

All publications are numbered following this system, and all three pieces of information are necessary to identify and locate the unique publication you may be researching among the thousands issued by Congress each year.

Number of the Congress

The life of each Congress is two years and each Congress has been numbered since the first Congress in 1789. The 104th Congress, for example, convened in January 1995 and ran until October 1996; the 105th Congress began in January 1997. Since World War II, the two-year Congress has been divided into two sessions (first and second), each lasting one year. Prior to the 77th Congress (1941-42), there occasionally were three or four session Congresses; some of these sessions were for a very short duration, sometimes lasting only a month or less.

Publication Number

The numbering of Congressional publications is sequential within each publication type, beginning with the number "1" in every Congress. This means that each Congress will have a bill numbered H.R. 1, so knowing the number of the Congress is important. Bills not acted upon when the two-year Congress adjourns sine die are considered to have expired. To be considered in the next Congress, these bills must be reintroduced and numbered in the new Congress' sequential order of bills. So, H.R. 1 from the 104th Congress can be very different from a bill numbered H.R. 1 from the 100th Congress. Knowing the Congress number ensures that you've got the right H.R. 1.

Tip: Frequently, it takes more than one Congress to pass a piece of legislation. Should a Member of Congress reintroduce a piece of legislation in a new Congress, he or she can ask the Bill Clerk to assign a special bill number, such as its previous Congressional bill number, to the bill when the it is reintroduced.

Tip: Another piece of information you need when looking at legislation is the version. (Fortunately, it is only with legislation that version is important.) You need to be sure you know which version of the bill you should be researching. Nothing is more frustrating than finishing your research using one version of legislation (such as the bill reported by one committee) only to discover that it had been replaced by a later version (the version that was amended and passed).

Publication Type

The final critical piece of identifying information is the type of publication. For example, "H.R. 1" tells you that the publication is the first bill introduced in the House of Representatives. It is a very different publication from "H.Rpt. 104-1" (an abbreviation for House of Representatives Report Number 1 from the 104th Congress), and completely different from "S. 1" (Senate bill number 1), "H.Res. 1," (House Resolution number 1), "H.J. Res. 1," (House Joint Resolution number 1), or "H.Con. Res. 1" (House Concurrent Resolution number 1).

Understanding this system of identifying congressional information sources, you should be able to recognize and use any publication you encounter during your research.