What happens after a bill becomes a law

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Many people remember from middle school the movie on how a bill becomes a law, but few civics courses teach about what happens afterward. On Monday, John, Josh, and I sat down with members of the Office of the Law Revision Counsel. Their job, in short, is to consolidate and codify laws passed by Congress based upon their subject matter — without making any substantive changes to the law — and to prepare the revised code for enactment into “positive law.”Law Books

U.S. statutory law is organized into 50 books, known as titles. Each title should contain only those laws that have to do with a discrete subject area. In addition, it should only contain general and permanent laws — excluding provisions that apply only for a limited time (e.g., an annual appropriations law) or to a small number of people (e.g., a private law). For example, Title 7 should only contain permanent laws having to do with agriculture. Title 28 should only concern the judiciary and judicial procedure.

However, the last time that all law was organized in this way (or “codified”) was in 1926. Since then, entirely new areas of law have emerged that weren’t part of the original structure. Those laws have been placed into the code wherever was convenient, without Congress necessarily considering where would make the most sense.

Over time, this has created a mess. Laws that are related to one another often are placed in completely different places. Occasionally, Congress enacts laws that contain technical errors. And, the passage of time and future legislation render certain provisions obsolete.

In response to these issues, the Office of Law Revision Counsel recodifies the laws: it reorganizes and rewords them. However, without legislative action, the office’s recodification does not have full legal force. In those instances, to see the actual text of the law, you have to look up the original bill passed by Congress and compare it against any additional laws that modify that original law.

Unless Congress enacts and the president signs the OLRC’s suggested revisions into law, the recodified text serves as a guide to how the law should be organized; it is prima facie (i.e., facial) evidence of what the law is. When Congress enacts the OLRC’s codification, it transforms the code into “positive law,” and repeals the statutes that originally created the laws. The only statutory law left is that newly-passed U.S. Code title.

As things currently stand, 24 titles have been revised and enacted into law. The other titles remain only prima facie evidence of the law.

The process of turning proposed codifications of the law into positive law can take a lot of time. After the OLRC proposes revisions to the code, it invites comments from federal agencies and non-governmental stakeholders in a process that can take more than a year. Currently, the OLRC has proposed six revisions to U.S. law, including the addition of four new titles to the code.

Congress, however, isn’t always so quick to act. For example, legislation to codify Title 41, concerning public contracts, was first introduced in the House of Representatives in May 2004. It has been reintroduced each subsequent Congress since then, and was finally passed by the House of Representatives on May 6, 2009. The ball is now in the Senate’s court.

The OLRC has been taking steps to update its services. It recently started a twitter feed, and it is interesting to watch as the OLRC announces where newly enacted legislation should be classified. In addition, OLRC recently updated its “popular name tool,” which allows users to find legislation by its popularly known name. Another useful resource from the office is its online search engine, which returns the most recently published version of the code plus a page containing any subsequent amendments or notes, and Public Law citation information. I can’t wait to see what other improvements the office will make to their web site.

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  • US citizens who think that when a law is created and signed by POTUS it becomes a “law of the land” are mistaken I’ve learned that Public Law 93-579 has never been “codified”. I am not sure what that means but when an attorney general office says a law is not codified I suspect that means it hasn’t become an enforceable law until and unless it has been ‘codified’.

  • Daniel Schuman

    ErudeMan, that’s not correct. Legislation passed by both Houses of Congress in an identical form and signed by the President becomes the law of the land. These laws are given a number based upon the order in which they were signed. Public Law 93-579, for example, was the 579th law enacted in the 93rd Congress.

    At some point after it has been enacted, the Office of Law Revision Counsel “codifies” the law. This is a little difficult to explain, but basically all of the laws are published in books known collectively as the U.S. Code, and broken into 50 Titles. This is done because it’s a lot easier to look through a book than to try to look at all the laws passed by congress and see how they fit together.

    Through the process of codification, each piece of legislation is broken down into its constituent parts and reorganized so that it can fit with the different sections of the US Code. One law make effectively amend many different sections of the US Code.

    So, you might ask, is the US Code federal law? Well, that depends. The law is only what Congress passes and the President signs. This clerical process of turning enacted law into the US code needs to be approved by Congress — through the passage of another law. This has only happened for 25 of the 50 titles of the US Code. So half of the US code is the law itself, and the other 25 titles are not the law itself. To find the true law for those sections of the code, you need to look at the legislation as it was passed by Congress and signed by the President.

    Let there be no mistake: law passed by Congress and signed by the President is indeed enforceable, unless the Courts determine it to be unconstitutional. I hope this helps.

  • If you’re correct then why doesn’t MN Attorney General enforce a non-codified law?

  • Sunrise

    Daniel Is this process the same at the state level? I presume it is. A bill in its entirety becomes law when passed by both chambers of congress and is signed by the state’s governor. What happens to those sections of a bill not included in the codification process? Do they sunset or live on until actively repealed?