What is a Bill?
A bill is legislation which has been proposed, but which may or may not eventually become law. In fact, less than 5 percent of U.S. 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 Government Documents). For a brief explanation, see the Federal Legislative Process. More information is in Tracking Current Federal Legislation and Regulations: A Guide to Basic Sources.
What is a Bill Number?
- When a bill is first introduced in one of the houses of Congress:
- it is assigned a number
- For bills in the Senate, abbreviated as in S. 213
- For bills in the House of Representatives, abbreviated as in H.R. 1171
- and referred to a committee
- it is assigned a number
- The bill number will remain the same even if the bill itself is amended many times.
- Bills not enacted into law at the end of the two-year Congressional session are dropped.
- If it is reintroduced in the next Congressional session, it will be assigned a new bill number.
- In theory, a bill must first pass one house of Congress before being sent to the other.
- But in many cases similar bills are introduced into both houses at more or less the same time.
- 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.
- An interesting note: all taxation bills must begin in the House of Representatives.
How Do I Find a Recent Bill?
To find bills from 1993 to the present, try govinfo.gov, Congress.gov or GovTrack.
- Congressional Bills (govinfo.gov)
- Can browse the full text of all bills from the beginning of the 103rd Congress (1993/1994) to the present or search by citation. To use the advanced search option: first check Congressional Bills under Refine by Collection, then customize the search. Has additional information in About Congressional Bills. A History of Bills is available from the 98th Congress (1983/1984) to the present.
- Bill records begin with the 93rd Congress (1973/1974); full text of all bills begins with the 103rd Congress (1993/1994). Can use QuickSearch box to search by keyword, sponsor/cosponsor, bill number, etc. Can click on "Legislation" for a template to search by bill number. Can click on "Browse" to browse by bill number ("Legislation and Committee Reports by Number"), subject ("Bills by Subject-Policy Area"), and sponsors/cosponsors ("Bills by Legislative Actions"). Can Find Bills by Subject and Policy Area, using a list of Legislative Subject Terms . Help links to numerous search tips. From the Library of Congress. Official website for U.S. federal legislative information.
- Free, non-governmental, non-partisan access to legislative information, including the full text of federal bills from the 103rd Congress (1993/1994) to the present. User-friendly searching.
- Farewell OpenCongress
- Blog explaining that OpenCongress from the Sunlight Foundation retired on March 1, 2017. Directs users searching for federal bills to use GovTrack and explains the key differences between the two sites.
How Do I Find Older Bills?
To find bills before 1874, use the U.S. House and Senate Bills and Resolutions:
- Senate bills and resolutions from 16th (1819) to 42nd (1873) Congress
- House bills and resolutions from 6th (1799) to 42nd (1873) Congress
To find other bills before 1993, 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 (Government 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 (Government Documents)
Dates available: 1940 - present
Indexed by sponsor and subject in one alphabetical index. Citations refer you to the day and page of the Congressional Record.
Also online from 1983 to present.
Once you have found the bill number, the next step is to find the full text of the bill. While WTAMU does not maintain a collection of older bills, 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. The History of Bills is available online from the 98th Congress (1983/1984) to the present.
To find committee hearings or reports use:
- CIS Annual
- KF 49.C62 (Government 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 older than 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.
- U.S. Federal Government: Bills and Resolutions
- 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.