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GIMMS Guide to the United States Congress

What kinds of documents does the U.S. Congress produce and how can I access them at Indiana University? Find out here!

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Introduction to the US Congress

The legislative branch of a government is responsible for creating the laws of the nation. In the United States, this function is carried out by the US Congress. Our Congress is bicameral, which means that it has two houses. The upper house is called the Senate and the lower house is called the House of Representatives. While both halves of Congress must be involved to pass any law, each half has slightly different powers and responsibilities.

The Senate

Each state is represented in the Senate by two Senators regardless of the state's size or population. Each Senator serves a six year term and are not limited in the number of terms they may serve. There are 50 states so there are 100 Senators, one-third of which are up election every two years. The leader of the Senate is the Vice-President of the United States who presides over the Senate's proceedings, but only votes to break a tie.

The Senate's special responsibilities largely involve the approval of treaties and the confirmation of many federal officers, including Supreme Court judges and the President's Cabinet Secretaries. The Senate also conducts the trial of those who have been impeached by the House of Representatives.

The House of Representatives

In 1911, the total number of Representatives was capped at 495. Every ten years, these seats are apportioned (or divided up) according to the population reports in the Decennial Census. Each state is entitled to at least one Representative, but most states have a large enough population to be divided into many districts, each of which elects one representative to the House. As of this writing, the State of Indiana has nine Representatives. Representatives serve two year terms and are not limited in the number of terms they may serve. Every two years, the entire House is up for election. The leader of the House is called the Speaker of the House and is elected to that position by the Representatives themselves.

Both houses of Congress submit bills to be considered for ratification into law, but only the House of Representatives may introduce bills about revenue. Also, before a federal officer can be sent to trial before the Senate, charges must be pressed against them through impeachment proceedings in the House.

Help at Indiana University

We are always happy to help you find what you need. If your questions aren't answered in this LibGuide, feel free to contact Government Information, Maps, and Microform Services anytime! libgimms@indiana.edu or 812-855-6924.

Basic Congressional Resources

Primary Sources

Find the documents themselves.

Congressional Quarterly Databases

CQ is a private entity specializing in congressional research and reporting. IU subscribes to many of its services. CQ Press Library is a gateway to all of them.

Learn About Congress

The Legislative Process

The People of Congress

Congressional Districts

Other Resources

Finding Congressional Publications

Introduction

U.S. Congressional publications result from the process of a bill becoming a law. This guide is intended to be a basic introduction to them and a finding aid to their location in the Wells Library and on the Internet.

Laws

Once a bill has gone through the entire legislative process and has become a law, you can find it in a few forms.

A law, once passed, is formally known as a "slip law" because they are printed on little sheets of thin paper, about the size of a sheet of printer paper folded in half. Some laws are so short, they are only one page long. Others are long enough to be bound like a book without covers. Particularly long laws in with cardstock covers take up the least percentage of shelf space, but they tend to be the most well-known ones..

Each slip law is given a number based on the order in which is was passed. Public Laws are what we think of when we think of federal laws, so you will most often see a slip law referred to as Pub. Law 106-24, which means "the Public Law that was the 24th one passed in the 106th session of Congress." If there are Public Laws, are there Private ones? Yes! Read about them both at GovInfo.

Shelves overflowing with slips of paper are unwieldy, so they are regularly compiled into a periodical called the Statutes at Large. Every law that has ever been passed in the history of the United States Congress is included in the Statutes, including laws that have been repealed. If you are interested in the history of a particular law, the Statutes contain the definitive text of the law as passed.

But what if you interested in the law as it stands today? What about laws that affect multiple areas of law? Then, you need the United States Code. When a new statute is passed, the US Code is rewritten to reflect the changes imparted by the new law.

Now that you know their names and functions, how can you access them?

Slip Laws

The only reason you might want a slip law is if you need the law as soon as it's published.

Statutes at Large

If you'd like to flip through all the laws any particular congress passed in the order that they passed them, or you just want to see the original text of a law, you want the Statues at Large.

United States Code

To see the laws assembled into their topical contexts, you need the U.S. Code.

House and Senate Bills

Where can you find current bills as they move through Congress? Where can you find the bill versions of laws? What about bills that never passed? Look no further!

Debates in Congress

Both houses of Congress debate bills before action is taken on them. These debates are recorded more or less verbatim in the Congressional Record and they have been since 1873. Before then, they were published in the following titles.

  • 1789–1824: Annals of Congress
  • 1824-1837: Register of Debates
  • 1833-1873: Congressional Globe

Congressional Record, 1873 - present

 

Annals of Congress, Register of Debates, and Congressional Globe

Committee Work

Rather than the entire Congress debating every bill, bills are sent to committees for study and discussion. Committees then report to the Senate or House those bills they have selected to advance.

United States Serial Set / American State Papers

The Serial Set contains, among other things, the documents and reports of the committees from both houses of Congress. Prior to 1817, these documents were found in the American State Papers. Here's how GovInfo describes their contents: "In general, it includes: committee reports related to bills and other matters, presidential communications to Congress, treaty materials, certain executive department publications, and certain non-governmental publications."

American State Papers

The early Serial Set is called the American State Papers, published by Gales and Seaton in the mid-1800's to replace materials destroyed in fires during the War of 1812.

U.S. Serial Set

The "United States Congressional Serial Set" is the bound collection of the numbered Reports and Documents from both the Senate and House. Each Session, the volumes are arranged and bound by the Joint Committee on Printing. Each volume is assigned a Serial Number for identification purposes. It began with the 1st Session of the 15th Congress in 1817, and the numbers have run consecutively ever since.

We also own most of the Serial Set in print. For security and environmental protection, almost all issues of are housed in the ALF, but may be requested for use in the Lilly Library or the Wells Library ALF Restricted Reading Room.

Currently, there are over 14,000 volumes spread across 15 IUCat records. The links below will take you to the IUCat record you will need for each specific volume.

Select the record of the Serial Set range in which the volume you want is listed. Click on Request from ALF. You will be notified when the volume is ready for use (usually within 24 hours). 

Other Committee Documents/Reports

Committee Hearings and Prints

Committees are authorized to call hearings wherein they can gather information from experts or other parties related to a topic. These hearings are generally public and are published. A committee print is "a publication used by committees for various purposes. For example, the rules of each standing committee may be published as a committee print, and drafts of bills or committee reports may be produced as committee prints."

Hearings and committee prints are available online, but we also have them in print. They are cataloged individually and may be found be searching their titles in IUCat. Please note that almost all of them are in the ALF.

Unpublished US House of Representatives committee hearings (microfiche)

Unpublished U.S. Senate committee hearings (microfiche)

Legislative Histories

A legislative history tells the story of how a particular piece of legislation came to pass. They answer such questions as: Who introduced the bill? Who sponsored it? What committees did it go through and what amendments were done to it? Who voted for it? etc.