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U.S. Congressional Materials at UC Berkeley: Introduction

This guide provides information on locating U.S. Congressional Materials within the UC Berkeley Library.

Free Public Access to Government Information

Free public access to United States government documents in a federal depository library is guaranteed by law (44 USC §1911).  While UC Berkeley houses one of the most comprehensive collections of U.S. government documents in the country, the Library is one of over a thousand Federal Depository Libraries across the United States, and one of several Federal Depository Libraries in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Introduction

United States Congressional publications provide a wealth of information on virtually any research topic.  They can be historic or timely, full of statistics, contain expert opinion, background information, or research with citations enabling you to delve deeper into a particular topic.  U.S. Congressional publications are also excellent primary source materials.   

This guide provides information on locating the various publications Congress produces in creating laws and conducting investigations.
 

How a Bill Becomes a Law

A bill is the form in which most legislation is introduced. In short, a bill must be approved by both the House and the Senate and signed by the President. Once signed, it is a law.

Bills may originate in the House or Senate, are designated H. R. or S. and are numbered consecutively throughout a Congress (each Congress has two sessions and each session lasts one calendar year. For instance, 2006 was the second (and last) session of the 109th Congress and 2007 is the first session of the 110th Congress.).

In each chamber (i.e. House or Senate), the bill goes through approximately the same stages. In some cases, the bill may be introduced in both chambers at the same time. Each will have a different bill number. Eventually the same bill will have to pass both chambers.

Various types of publications will be generated throughout the process. Following is a brief summary of the publications and steps:

  1. The bill is introduced and assigned to a committee (some may originate in committee--the committee's report will specify).
  2. The committee usually refers the bill to a subcommittee for study, hearings, revision, and/ or approval.
  3. The subcommittee sends the bill back to the full committee, which may amend or rewrite the bill.
  4. The full committee decides whether to "kill" the bill or send it to the floor of its chamber for approval. Note: In the House, the bill usually goes to the Rules Committee to grant a "rule" governing debate.
  5. The leaders of the chamber then schedule the bill for debate and vote.
  6. The bill is debated, amendments offered and voted on, and a final vote is taken.
  7. Once the bill passes one chamber, it is sent to the other chamber where the process starts all over again. Note: If different versions of the bill are passed in each chamber, a conference committee composed of members of each chamber, will work out the differences. The bill is returned to each chamber for a vote on the revised bill.
  8. After passing both chambers, the bill is sent to the President who may sign or vetoe the bill. If signed, the bill becomes a law; if vetoed, each chamber must approve the bill by a two-thirds majority for it to become law.

Some differences: The House must initiate all revenue bills; tax and appropriations bills generally only have a House bill number, even though they must be approved by the Senate. The Senate gives "advice and consent" to many Presidential appointments and must approve treaties. See also: How Congress Makes Laws from the House and Senate.

The cartoon below is a simplified way a bill becomes a law. In reality, it is rarely this simple.  For more information on congressional procedure, see the box on Congressional Procedure on the Bills tab of this guide.

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Jesse Silva

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