How Laws Are Made and How to Research Them

Learn how laws, regulations, and executive orders are made and how to look them up.

How Federal Laws Are Made

The U.S. Congress is the legislative branch of the federal government and makes laws for the nation. Congress has two legislative bodies (houses): the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Anyone elected to either body can propose a new law. Proposals for new laws are called bills.

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Steps in making a law:

  • A bill can be introduced in either house of Congress by a Senator or Representative who sponsors it.
  • Once a bill is introduced, Representatives or Senators will meet in small groups to discuss, research or make changes to it.
  • The bill is then put before that house to be voted on.
  • If the bill passes one body of Congress, it is then presented to the other body to go through a similar process to be proposed, discussed and voted on.
  • Once both bodies vote to accept a bill, it is presented to the President.
  • The President then considers the bill. The president can approve the bill and sign it into law or not approve (veto) a bill.
  • If the President chooses to veto a bill, in most cases Congress can vote to override that veto and the bill becomes a law. However, if the President pocket vetoes a bill after Congress has adjourned, the veto cannot be overridden.

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Federal Laws and Regulations

Federal laws generally apply to people living in the United States and its territories.

Congress creates and passes bills. The President then signs those bills into law. Federal courts may review these laws and strike them down if they think they do not agree with the U.S. Constitution.

Find Federal Laws

The United States Code contains the general and permanent federal laws of the United States. It does not include regulations, decisions, or laws issued by:

  • Federal agencies
  • Federal courts  
  • Treaties
  • State and local governments

New public and private laws are published in each edition of the United States Statutes at Large.

Federal Regulations

Regulations are issued by federal agencies, boards, or commissions.  They explain how agencies intend to carry out laws. Regulations are published yearly in The Code of Federal Regulations.

The Rulemaking Process

Federal regulations are created through a process known as rulemaking. If an agency wants to make, change, or delete a rule, the agency will publish the proposal in the Federal Register and seek public comments.

After the agency considers the public's comments and changes the rule if necessary, it publishes the rule’s final version in the Federal Register, along with a description of the comments received, the agency’s response to those comments, and the date the rule goes into effect.

Federal Court Decisions

Although federal courts do not write or pass laws, they may establish individual “rights” under federal law through their interpretations of federal and state laws and the U.S. Constitution. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka held that state laws which segregated public school students by race were unconstitutional, because they violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.  In striking down those state laws, the Supreme Court determined that “separate but equal” educational facilities instilled a sense of inferiority in minority children that undermined their educational opportunities.

Research decisions of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts in the Law Library of Congress.

State Laws and Regulations

State legislatures make the laws in each state. State courts may review these laws and remove them if they think they do not agree with the state's constitution.

Find state laws and regulations with the Law Library of Congress’s guide for each state.

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Executive Orders and Other Presidential Actions

The President can issue a variety of documents to direct the work of government officials and agencies, and to inform the public about issues that are important to him or her.

These Executive or Presidential actions can include:

  • Executive Orders
  • Presidential Memoranda
  • Proclamations

Executive Orders

An Executive order is a Presidential action that has the power of a federal law. Presidents might issue Executive orders to create committees or organizations like the Peace Corps. In general, though, Presidents use Executive orders to direct and manage how the federal government operates.

Congress may attempt to overturn an Executive order by passing legislation that opposes the order. However, the President can veto that bill, and Congress would then need to override that veto to pass the bill. Also, the Supreme Court can declare an Executive order to be unconstitutional.

Presidential Memoranda

Presidential memoranda are similar to Executive orders. The President can use memoranda to direct the actions of the federal government. However, Executive orders must be numbered and published in the Federal Register. Presidential memoranda do not have that requirement.

Presidential Proclamations

Presidential proclamations are written statements that speak directly to the public on matters of policy important to the President. They are primarily symbolic and are usually not enforced as laws on their own.

Find Presidential Actions

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) maintains text of Executive orders from former Presidents since 1937.

You can find additional information about Executive orders from NARA.

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Last Updated: March 13, 2017

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