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Magazines > Information Today > January/February 2021

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Information Today
Vol. 38 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2021
FEATURE
Itís 2021. Do You Know Where Your Laws Are?

by Anthony Aycock

The 2020 election was one for the ages. What comes next—the actual governing—should be less eye-popping, proceeding down a path traveled by generations of lawmakers. The websites discussed in this article will help info pros light that path for researchers at all levels.

Well, that was fun. The 2020 election, I mean. Records fell right and left. President-elect Joe Biden earned more than 81 million votes for president—the most in U.S. history. President Donald Trump’s more than 74 million were the second most. The election had the highest turnout since 1900, with more than two-thirds of eligible Americans casting a vote. The two hard-fought campaigns delivered plenty of highs (about $1.5 billion each in donations, a record) and lows (I’m still shaking my head over that first debate), plus some moments that were outright ridiculous (e.g., any moment involving Rudy Giuliani).

Things have settled a bit now in the daybreak of 2021. President-elect Biden will soon slough off the post-hyphen part of his title and begin leading an exhausted nation. But the election was not just a chance to choose a president. Hundreds of legislators were also chosen at both the federal and state levels. The federal legislators make up the U.S. Congress, which has already begun its job of writing and passing laws, as have 50 state legislatures.

Unlike the president, whose every move is on display, the legislative process is a bit murkier. How are bills passed? Where can copies of them be found? How do you research the history of a bill? Are executive orders laws, or are they something else? Here are the best resources for answering such questions.

U.S. RESOURCES

Remember these lyrics from the 1976 Schoolhouse Rock episode “I’m Just a Bill”?

I’m just a bill.
Yes, I’m only a bill.
And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.
Well, it’s a long, long journey
To the capital city.
It’s a long, long wait
While I’m sitting in committee,
But I know I’ll be a law someday.
At least I hope and pray that I will,
But today I am still just a bill.

Of course you do. In the episode (which you can watch at youtube.com/watch?v=FFroMQlKiag, if you need a hit of nostalgia), a young boy travels to Washington, D.C., where he meets an animated bill slumped on the U.S. Capitol steps. Bill says he started as an idea that some folks discussed with their local congressman, who wrote and submitted Bill for a vote. He explains his progress from committee through both legislative chambers—House of Representatives and Senate—to his final stop: the president, who can sign or veto him. (Spoiler: Bill becomes a law!) “I’m Just a Bill” is how those of us of a certain age learned the federal legislative process—a process made more transparent (I hope) by the following websites.  

Congress.gov

Maintained by the Library of Congress, Congress.gov (congress.gov) is “the official website for U.S. federal legislative information.” Bills are posted as they are introduced, and you can track their progress through the legislative gamut. See Figure 1 for how the CARES Act appears, for example.

Note the tabs below the tracker that indicate what else about this bill I can view—its amendments and co-sponsors, the committees that crafted it, and a summary by the Congressional Research Service (loc.gov/crsinfo), which provides policy and legal analysis and is one of the best sources of congressional information out there (required reading: “The Electoral College: An Overview and Analysis of Reform Proposals,” #RL30804).

What else does Congress.gov offer? Live video of sessions. Full text of the Congressional Record, the official journal of congressional proceedings. Full text of the United States Code, the collection of statutes currently in effect in the U.S. And a whole lot more.

USA.gov and govinfo

USA.gov (usa.gov) and govinfo (govinfo.gov) are also official government websites. The former is maintained by the U.S. General Services Administration, the latter by the U.S. Government Publishing Office.

USA.gov is organized like an encyclopedia. Topics include Education, Housing, Health, Jobs and Unemployment, Voting and Elections, and Laws and Legal Issues. This last topic leads to articles on common interests—prisons, copyright law, labor issues—as well as discussions of the legislative process, court decisions, rulemaking, and presidential actions. There is a guide on researching the law that isn’t as robust as, say, the Library of Congress’ Guide to Law Online (loc.gov/law/help/guide.php), but it covers the basics. You can also find hundreds of forms from dozens of federal agencies.

govinfo is geared toward primary source documents. One major collection is the CFR, or Code of Federal Regulations, which includes all of the rules made by federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, Securities and Exchange Commission, military branches, and Department of Justice. Regulations have the force of law, so this is an important collection to have free access to. You can also see the vast array of presidential documents, such as executive orders or proclamations. Like regulations, these have the force of law, and they can’t be overturned by Congress. Only a sitting president may retract them.

STATE RESOURCES

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This line is the sum total of the 10th Amendment to the Constitution. Ratified in 1791, it made explicit one of the founders’ chief aims: to avoid the sort of top-down government—i.e., constitutional monarchy—they had just rebelled against. Armed with these new “reserved” powers, the states began creating their own laws. And they never stopped.

There is a surprising amount of variation in how state governments are structured. Most states have two chambers of their legislature; Nebraska has one. Most states have three levels to their court system; Delaware, Maine, Montana, and six others have two. Forty-nine states have a “common law” system; Louisiana uses “civil law,” derived from the Napoleonic Code (bloomlegal.com/blog/what-is-unique-about-louisiana-law). And don’t get me started on statutory differences, such as why the minimum age for marriage is 18 in Minnesota, 15 in Utah, and 12 in Massachusetts (and why Mississippi has different ages for males and females).

You can see a list of state legislative websites at congress.gov/state-legislature-websites. Most include the same types of information. For example, in North Carolina, where I am the legislative librarian, our site (ncleg.gov) has the full text of all bills back to 1985. As with Congress.gov, you can track a bill from beginning to end, seeing the committees that worked on it, the votes for and against, and when it was signed—or vetoed—by the governor. We also have session laws—bills that passed—back to 1959. When the legislature is in session, you can live stream the audio feed from either chamber as well as any committee meeting. Our House of Representatives will add video streaming in 2021.

 National Governors Association Governors, like the president, have certain powers. These powers vary by state, but, in general, a governor can, among other things:

  • Veto legislation
  • Appoint people to state boards and commissions
  • Command the National Guard
  • Issue executive orders

This last action can be controversial when governors and legislatures are at odds. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, North Carolina’s governor, Roy Cooper, was an early adopter of public restrictions. He declared a state of emergency on March 10. Four days later, he issued his first order restricting public gatherings. Dozens more followed, resulting in the closures of bars, restaurants, amusement parks, and more. All of these orders withstood legislative and judicial efforts to overturn them—except the order to close churches, which was nullified by a federal court on May 16 (tinyurl.com/y38rwutn).

The National Governors Association website (nga.org) links to the sites of all 50 state governors. It also has an excellent discussion of those gubernatorial powers mentioned previously, offering details on how and when they may be used (nga.org/governors/powers-and-authority).

The 2020 election was one for the ages. What comes next—the actual governing—should be less eye-popping, proceeding down a path traveled by generations of lawmakers. The websites discussed in this article will help info pros light that path for researchers at all levels.


Anthony Aycock is the director of the North Carolina Legislative Library and an assistant editor for Convention Scene (conventionscene.com). He has a B.A. in English, an M.F.A. in creative writing, an M.L.I.S., and an M.A. in criminal justice. Send your comments about this article to itletters@infotoday.com or tweet us (@ITINewsBreaks).