Researching the Law
Public Laws, the Statutes at Large, and the United States Code
When a bill or joint resolution is enacted into law, it is given a public law1 number in the form 000–0. The first number is the number of the Congress that passed the law, and the second number indicates the sequential order of enactment of the law within that Congress. For example, Public Law 111–161 was the 161st law enacted during the 111th Congress. The public laws passed by recent Congresses may be accessed on Thomas.
Each new statute is printed as a separate document called a slip law. At the end of each session of Congress, the slip laws from that session are compiled, in sequential order, into the Statutes at Large. The top of each page of a slip law has a “Stat.” page number, which is the number that page will have in the Statutes at Large.
The Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives organizes most provisions of the public laws by subject matter in the United States Code so that particular provisions can be easily located. If a provision is of general applicability and is permanent, it will probably be assigned to a section in the Code; a provision that is temporary, narrow in scope, obsolete, or executed may be assigned to a note or appendix or left out of the Code entirely. To search or browse the Code, you may visit the Office of the Law Revision Counsel’s Search & Browse page.
Positive versus non-positive law titles of the U.S. Code
The first editions of the U.S. Code were simply restatements of the public laws by subject matter; they did not actually take the place of those laws. If there was a conflict between a Code provision and the underlying statutory provision, the statute controlled.
In 1947, Congress began the process of enacting titles of the Code into law and repealing the underlying statutes, a process that continues today. A title so enacted is referred to as a “positive law” title because it is the law itself, not merely a restatement of it. You can quickly see the status of a title by looking at the first page after the title page of any volume of the Code or at the Search & Browse page on the Office of the Law Revision Counsel's website. Those titles marked with an asterisk have been enacted into positive law.
When legislation cites a statutory provision that is not part of a positive law title of the U.S. Code, the citation must be to the underlying statute, not to the Code. Because the original slip law and the Statutes at Large are not updated to reflect any amendments since enactment, access to a compilation of the statute that includes the amendments is an enormous drafting aid. Among the entities that maintain compilations are legal publishing companies, congressional committees, and the House Office of the Legislative Counsel. For access to compilations maintained by our Office, see our list of Selected Statutes.
Other sources of Federal law
In addition to the statutes Congress passes, Federal law includes the Constitution, agency regulations, and case law. In order to draft an effective statute, one must be aware of both the statutory and non-statutory law in the relevant area. The attorneys in the American Law Division of the Congressional Research Service conduct comprehensive legal research related to a drafting project when requested by a Member, and their assistance is especially helpful in the areas where non-statutory law plays a large role.