Finding Federal Bills

What is a Bill?

Bills are legislation which has been proposed but which may or may not eventually make it into law. And in fact, less than 90 percent of bills actually do make it all the way through the legislative process. The United States government makes these potential laws available so that citizens, in whose name legislation is being made, can keep informed about what their government is doing and communicate their opinions to their legislators.

For a detailed explanation of the legislative process, consult How Our Laws Are Made (also available in the library at Y 1.1/7:106-197 in Documents). For more information on tracking current legislation see How to Follow Current Federal Legislation and Regulations.

What is a Bill Number?

When a bill is first introduced into one of the houses of Congress (taxation bills must begin in the House of Representatives) it is assigned a number (H.B. #### for bills in the House of Representatives and S. #### for those in the Senate) and referred to a committee. From then on, as hearings are held and reports written, the bill number will remain the same while the bill itself may be amended many times. A bill can continue from one session of a Congress to another, however it will die at the end of the Congress if it does not pass into law. If it is reintroduced into the next Congress, it will be assigned a new bill number. Also, while in theory, a bill must first pass one house of Congress before being sent to the other, in many cases similar bills are introduced into both houses at more or less the same time and then one is substituted for the other or the differences are settled in a conference committee. As a result, a bill may have several numbers before it finally is passed into law which can make legislative history research difficult.

How Do I Find a Recent Bill?

To find bills from 1993 to the present, search either GPO Access or the Library of Congress' Thomas service:

Congressional Bills (GPO Access)
Full text of all bills from the beginning of the 103rd (1993/94) Congress to the present. Can be searched by subject keywords, sponsor/cosponsor, or bill number. A History of Bills database (updated biweekly) for all Congresses is also available. Results can be downloaded or printed out.
Thomas: Legislative Information on the Internet
Also full text of all bills from the beginning of the 101st (1989/90) Congress. Searchable by keyword, member's name, and bill number. Includes a Bill Summary and Status database which is searchable by keyword, index term, bill/amendment number, public law number, sponsor/cosponsor, and committee. Results can be downloaded or printed out.

How Do I Find Older Bills?

To find older bills, you will need to begin by finding the appropriate bill number(s) for the Congress(es) in which the bill was introduced. To find a bill number by subject, use:

Digest of Public General Bills and Resolutions
Location: LC 14.6:congress/session (Documents)
Dates available: 1936 - 1954, 1974 - 1990
Summarizes all public bills and resolutions for each legislative session. Each entry includes number, title, sponsor, date introduced, and digest. Indexed by sponsor/cosponsor, identical bills, short title, and subject.
Congressional Record Index
Location: X 1.1:congress/no (Documents)
Dates available: 1940 - present
Indexed by sponsor and subject in one alphabet. Citations refer you to the day and page of the Congressional Record.
Congressional Quarterly
Location: Periodicals/Bound or online at Congressional Quarterly Electronic Library
Dates available: 1966 - present
The Status of Major Legislation table at the end of each issue includes the bill number for all major legislation before the current congress. The table also gives any report number and the public law number, if the bill has passed into law.

Once you have found the bill number, the next step is to find the full text of the bill. WTAMU does not maintain a collection of older bills, however they can be obtained through Interlibrary Loan. If you do not have time for Interlibrary Loan, you will need to find a reprint of the bill in either 1) the Congressional Record, or 2) a committee report or hearing.

To find discussion in the Congressional Record, use the "History of Bills and Resolutions" section of the Congressional Record Index (above) for a listing of citations to all discussion on a particular bill and (possibly) a copy of the bill. To find committee hearings or reports use:

CIS annual
KF 49.C62 (Documents/Reference); 1970 - 1998
Indexes and abstracts U.S. legislative information, including congressional publications and legislative histories, congressional hearings, bills, the Congressional Record, and the National Journal. To find a bill from before 1989, search the abstracts of publications to see if the full-text of the bill was included.

For more information

How Our Laws are Made
Written by the Parliamentarian of the United States House of Representatives.
Enactment of a Law
From the United States Senate Parliamentarian.
Legislative Research: A Web-Based Bibliographic Instruction Program
An experimental web-based tutorial on legislative research. Some of the resources discussed are not available to WTAMU-affiliated patrons, however the process is still helpful.
U.S. Government Information: Legislative Information
Description of the legislative process with links to where to find the relevant documents.
Congressional Research Service Reports
CRS reports on legislative and budgetary processes and procedures, see our guide to finding these reports online.

Any questions? Ask a Librarian, or call us at 806/651-2205.