A comprehensive dataset of U.S. federal laws (1789–2022)

Background & Summary What is a law? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a rule or system of rules recognized by a country or community as regulating the actions of its members and enforced by the imposition of penalties.” 1 So defined, laws in the United States can originate from many sources, including courts, the President, executive agencies, and so forth, both at the state and the national-level. Yet when scholars speak more formally about the set of “U.S. laws,” they often intend to refer to a smaller set of authoritative documents. In particular, they frequently mean those federal laws enacted by the two Congressional chambers, potentially over the President’s veto, through the legislative process outlined in Article 1 Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution. When Congress acts legislatively in this fashion, it may do so by issuing a variety of documents that go by different names, have different formal features, and follow different internal processes. These sub-genre distinctions can and indeed have changed over time. At present writing, the set of allowable legislation include bills, joint resolutions, concurrent resolutions, and simple resolutions. Of these, only bills and joint resolutions have the general and binding character that one typically associates with laws. And even then, there are exceptions and sub-divisions within these categories. Last year Congress enacted a private law allowing Alaska-woman Rebecca Trimble to obtain permanent resident status, despite the fact the paperwork her adoptive parents had used to bring her to the United States from Mexico had been defective. Such “private bills” granting relief in one-off cases are typically not what scholars have in mind when one refers to “laws.” Nor are joint resolutions approving constitutional amendments which are not ratified by the states really laws (e.g. the Equal Rights Amendment). Despite this esoteric mess of […]

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By Donato