Federal Statutes: What They Are and Where to Find Them

Publication Date: January 2009

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Education



This report provides a brief overview of Federal statutes and where to find them, both in hard copy and on the Internet. When Congress passes a law, it may be amending or repealing earlier enactments or it may be writing on a clean slate. Newly enacted laws are published chronologically, first as separate statutes (in "slip law" form) and, later, cumulatively in a series of volumes known as the Statutes At Large. Statutes are numbered by order of enactment either as Public Laws or, far less frequently, Private Laws, depending on their scope. Additionally, most statutes are also incorporated separately into the United States Code. The United States Code (and its commercial counterparts) takes those Federal statutes that are of a general and permanent nature and arranges them by subject into separate titles. As the statutes that underlie the Code are revised, superseded, or repealed, the provisions of the Code are updated to reflect these changes.

Slip law versions of Public Laws are not widely available in hard copy form outside Capitol Hill except at university libraries, law school libraries, or similar depositories (though these often have slip laws in microfiche format only). They are more readily available on the Internet. Statutes At Large is used primarily to research the original language of statutes and laws that are not codified in the Code, appropriations statutes and private laws, for example. The Statutes At Large series often is available at large libraries. The United States Code (and its commercial counterparts) are usually available at local libraries. The Code also is readily available on the Internet, though not always in user-friendly form.

Most significant statutes - the Social Security Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the Clean Air Act, for example - are published and updated both in a stand alone version, as amended, and as they appear in the Code. Only some, but not all, titles of the Code are the authoritative version of the "law." For other titles, the authoritative version of the statutes codified therein is the underlying public law, as amended - e.g., the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, as amended, is the authoritative version, not title 8 of the Code.

After providing an overview on the basics of Federal statutes, this report gives guidance on where Federal statutes, in their various forms, may be located on the Internet, where they are most readily accessible. This report will updated periodically.