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Political Science 330 Public Policy Analysis: Federal Legislation

An online course guide for researching government programs as part of policy analysis for POLISCI 330

Federal Legislation

When public laws are passed by Congress, they are first published individually and are known as "slip laws." Each law is numbered, e.g., P.L. 110-1 is the first public law enacted by the 110th Congress. After a session of Congress is finished, these slip laws are republished in a bound volume format, along with private laws, concurrent resolutions passed by Congress, and presidential proclamations. The laws are still in chronological (numerical) order, but there is a subject index at the back. These volumes are known as the United States Statutes at Large (aka the "session laws," or laws enacted during one session of Congress).

The last step for a public law is the United States Code, which compiles active laws by subject. It does not include private laws. The USC is updated every six years, with supplements in intervening years. Because information in the USC is updated to reflect later changes and amendments to laws, it does not necessarily reflect a law as originally passed. For the original text of federal public laws, use the Statutes at Large.

Using the Statutes at Large

To find a law in the Statutes at Large, use the law's Statutes at Large citation. An example of such a citation is 78 STAT. 241 (see sample page). The first number in the citation refers to the volume and the second number refers to the page. The volume number does not coincide with the session of Congress that passed the laws contained in the volume. In this example, volume 78 contains laws passed by the 88th Congress.

If you do not have a citation for the law, choose the Statutes at Large volume that contains the year the law was passed, and look in the subject index at the back of the volume for either the name of the law or, if there is no formal name, for the subject that you need. The page number on which the information begins is listed.

In addition to the text of the law, the Statutes at Large shows the public law number, the date the law was enacted, the original number of the bill that created the law, the United States Code citation(s) where the law will be placed, and the legislative history of the law. In volumes prior to 1975, the legislative history is found in a table at the back of each volume; from 1975 forward, the history appears at the end of each law.

Andersen Library's Statutes at Large are located as follows:

  • 1984-2006: Federal Documents Stacks (1st/lower level floor), call number AE 2.111:
  • 1964-1983: Federal Documents Stacks, call number GS 4.111:
  • 1789-1963: Federal Documents Microform cabinets (1st/lower level floor), call number GS 4.111:
  • 1789-1875: also available online through the Library of Congress's American Memory site

Full text of public laws from 1989 to the present can also be found online in the ProQuest Congressional database.

  1. Search by keyword. On the left of the results, click content type "Bills and Laws."  or
  2. Search by number (see option for that below the search box.

The compiled legislative histories of public laws can also be found in the ProQuest Legislative Insight database. The legislative history will contain the Statutes at Large citation for the law, which can then be used to find the text of the law in the correct print volume, or, for more recent laws, in the database. Follow these steps: