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 makes federal laws for the nation. Congress has two legislative bodies or branches: the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

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Steps in making a law:

  1. If A Senator or Representative has an idea for a new law, he/she produces a rough draft of the idea and sponsors it, which makes it a bill.
  2. The bill then goes to whichever legislative branch (Senate or House) the Senator or Representative belongs.
  3. The bill then goes through a process, which can change it, amend, or lay it so there is no vote.
  4. If the bill undergoes a vote by the entire legislative branch, a majority vote will send it to the other branch where it will go through a similar process.
  5. If there is a majority vote and both the House and the Senate approve all changes made, the bill then goes to the President.
  6. The President takes action on the bill by either signing it into law, letting it become law without a signature, vetoing it, or pocket-vetoing it.

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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 laws of the United States. It does not include regulations issued by executive branch agencies, decisions of federal courts, treaties, or laws enacted by state or local governments.

New laws are assigned a public law number and included in the next edition of the United States Statutes at Large. You can also find new laws enacted by the current Congress before they are part of the United States Statutes at Large. 

If you are looking for older laws and have trouble finding them on the internet, visit a law library or a Federal Depository Library

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Federal Regulations

Regulations are issued by federal agencies, boards, or commissions. They explain how the agency intends to carry out a law.

The Rulemaking Process

Federal regulations are created through a process known as rulemaking.

By law, federal agencies must consult the public when creating, modifying, or deleting rules in the Code of Federal Regulations. This is an annual publication that lists the official and complete text of federal agency regulations.

Once an agency decides that a regulation needs to be added, changed, or deleted, it typically publishes a proposed rule in the Federal Register to ask the public for comments.

After the agency considers public feedback and makes changes where appropriate, it then publishes a final rule in the Federal Register with a specific date for when the rule will become effective and enforceable.

When the agency issues a final rule for comment, it must describe and respond to the public comments it received.

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State Laws and Regulations

State laws generally apply just to people living in that state.

State legislatures create and pass bills and the governor signs them into law. 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

The Law Library of Congress has a guide for each state that can help you find laws and regulations.

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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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