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Frequent Reference Question: How Many Federal Laws Are There?

The following is a guest post by Shameema Rahman, Senior Legal Research Specialist in our Public Services Division.  Shameema is a frequent contributor to In Custodia Legis; her most recent post was entitled Presidential Signing Statements.

At the reference desk, we are frequently asked to estimate the number of federal laws in force. However, trying to tally this number is nearly impossible.

If you think the answer to this question can be found in the volumes of the Statutes at Large, you are partially correct. The Statutes at Large is a compendium that includes all the federal laws passed by the U.S. Congress. However, a total count of laws passed does not account for the fact that some laws are completely new; some are passed to amend existing laws; and others completely repeal old laws. Moreover, this set does not include any case law or regulatory provisions that have the force of law.

Law Library of Congress Reading Room Copy of the U.S. Statutes at Large

In a conversation about this topic, a friend asked me, “What about the United States Code?” The current Code has 51 titles in multiple volumes. It would be very time consuming to go page by page to count each federal law, and it also does not include case law or regulatory provisions.

While we are on the topic, would you like to know the difference between the United States Code and the Statutes at Large? According to the Government Printing Office, “the Statutes at Large, is the permanent collection of all laws and resolutions enacted during each session of Congress.” The laws are arranged by public law number and are published in the Statutes at Large. The set also includes concurrent resolutions, proclamations, proposed and ratified amendments to the Constitution, and reorganization plans. Until 1948, treaties and international agreements approved by the Senate were also published in the Statutes at Large. This set is organized by year. So, if you are interested in locating the laws of passed in 1996 you need to consult the volumes for that year.

As for the United States Code, the Government Printing Office explains that “the United States Code is the codification by subject matter of the general and permanent laws of the United States. It is divided by broad subjects into 51 titles and published by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives.” It is clear that the United States Code is a compilation of laws arranged by subject. However, similar to the Statutes at Large,  it does not include case law or regulatory provisions.

United States Code Set Available in the Law Library Reading Room

In an example of a failed attempt to tally up the number of laws on a specific subject area, in 1982 the Justice Department tried to determine the total number of criminal laws. In a project that lasted two years, the Department compiled a list of approximately 3,000 criminal offenses. This effort, headed by Ronald Gainer, a Justice Department official, is considered the most exhaustive attempt to count the number of federal criminal laws. In a Wall Street Journal article about this project, “this effort came as part of a long and ultimately failed campaign to persuade Congress to revise the criminal code, which by the 1980s was scattered among 50 titles and 23,000 pages of federal law.” Or as Mr. Gainer characterized this fruitless project: “[y]ou will have died and [been] resurrected three times,” and still not have an answer to this question.

If you are interested in learning more about U.S. statutes, regulations or case law, attend one of our legal research classes. Additionally, we have many research guides on our website, including: Administrative Law Guide, Guide to Federal Statutes, and Researching Judicial Decisions.

 

 

30 Comments

  1. Barbara
    March 12, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    Does anyone know if there is a kosher tax law? Did Congress ever pass such a law?

  2. Jeanine Cali
    March 12, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    Interesting question. Please submit your question to our reference librarians at http://www.loc.gov/rr/askalib/ask-law2.html

  3. Mikhail Koulikov
    March 14, 2013 at 10:45 am

    This is an interesting discussion, but it doesn’t answer the question of in the title of the post. Trying to tally the number by literally counting Chapters and Public Laws as published in the Statutes at Large may be time-consuming and difficult and maybe meaningless – but it’s not impossible.

  4. rupu
    March 17, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    Interesting question

  5. Joseph
    March 23, 2013 at 12:50 am

    Thomas Jefferson wrote that the U.S. Constitution gave Congress the power to criminally punish “treason, counterfeiting the securities and current coin of the United States, piracies, and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations, and no other crimes whatsoever.”
    With that statement made, and the knowledge that congress CAN change or add to the laws of this country through additional amendments to the constitution, are the federal Statutes at Large constitutionally “legal”?
    Article. IV.
    Section. 1.
    “Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.”
    Does this act grant congress the ability to define what is or is not criminal?

  6. Cody
    April 20, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    What is the answer? How many Federal Laws exist? How is this a “free” country when we have so many laws that our Library Of Congress cannot tally them?

  7. TechiePatriot
    May 4, 2013 at 6:32 pm

    This is a scary thought. There are so many Federal laws that no one knows how many there really are.

    “In an example of a failed attempt to tally up the number of laws on a specific subject area, in 1982 the Justice Department tried to determine the total number of criminal laws. In a project that lasted two years, the Department compiled a list of approximately 3,000 criminal offenses.”

    Just think how many things are criminal offenses by now as of 2013 (add 30 more years to 1982). And just about everything is a felony – which is a life sentence for those who are convicted of a crime.

    I think we need to take a serious look at our criminal code and how long someone should have to pay for their crimes. If they have done their time – they shouldn’t have to keep paying for it 20 years later…. I blame both Democrats and Republicans as well as lawyers for our horrible situation where 1 in 40 adults is a convicted felon. Think about that for a moment – one in every 40 people you meet or pass on the street or in your car – 1 of them is a felon.

  8. James McCord
    June 20, 2013 at 9:31 am

    What a sad statement of our current situation! truly are federal government has run amok. they have made so many laws that they can’t even be counted! a quote from George Washington,” in order for freedom to survive, it must occasionally drink the blood of patriots.” I wonder now if there is enough left to slake its thirst. we are supposed to be a people governed by consent. do we truly consent to this?(”

  9. Matthew Sercely
    July 5, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Thomas Jefferson didn’t write the Constitution

  10. Thomas
    July 5, 2013 at 11:42 pm

    All I want to know is how many federal, state and local laws exist in the United States.

  11. dave
    July 22, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    I believe all the laws being passed will eventually make the U.S. a communist country. does anyone back me on this?

  12. Glen
    July 30, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    God only gave us 10 rules to follow!

  13. Daryl
    July 30, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    The number of laws a government has has no real bearing on whether a nation is considered “free” or not nor does it have anything to do with “government run amok”.

    It is a sign of the age of a nation, given that as the nation ages, more laws are written to accommodate the changing times. It’s also the sign of a democracy, as laws can be questioned at any time and changed/added as needed.

    As such, one could easily argue that the number of laws we have is directly *because* we have a free democratic society that’s been around for over 200 years with a government that has been accommodating of society’s legal needs.

  14. Jake
    September 5, 2013 at 11:21 am

    So you wrote up this whole thing and didn’t answer the question?

  15. J.R. Woods
    October 25, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    What is the law for someone being incarcerated under the wrong name.

  16. Jeanine Cali
    October 25, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    Thanks for your inquiry. Please submit your question via our Ask a Librarian Service .

  17. Noddy
    December 21, 2013 at 5:50 am

    You’re citing the number of laws from 1982? Isn’t there any newer data out there? What you provided was basically a non-answer. 1982,

  18. mike
    February 11, 2014 at 6:08 am

    This just proves freedom isn’t free. Interesting article although I think most laws should and are common sense. Also god did give us ten guidelines but if you ever read the bible or Koran I think there more laws in them then we have.

  19. al jackson
    March 17, 2014 at 9:00 am

    apparently it is impossible to count the# of laws in the usa.

    I never hear of laws being repealed.

  20. Petro
    March 27, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    I am from Albania, Europe, but this issue has bothered me a lot throughout the last years. It is funny and scary to think that they do not even know the number of laws actually in force. Meanwhile, it is assumed that by a certain age (in my country it is 18) all people are aware of all the laws and that they are fully responsible for their actions. In my opinion they do not even know a few lines from the constitution. The game is not leveled and it is very unfair if one is not born and raised in an environment that can protect them. There are people that do not even know about the existence of human rights (I certainly do not remember all of them). There are all kinds of laws and regulations out there that rather restrict people with good intentions (which is the majority) than prevent people with bad ones. I understand that the existence of a complex law system is what makes lawyers keep their jobs in the end of the day but this comes with the very high price of regular people constantly fearing to make big dreams about changing their lives.

    Whatever laws we issue we should bear in mind that they are human laws. They cannot stand above natural laws. For example the internet era found the law community totally unprepared because the internet expanded by following the natural laws. And despite the problems it did very well. Now they are trying to put restrictions and make it resemble more the well defined reality of the real world. I don’t think they will do more good than harm by doing this, if they succeed of course.

  21. Ted
    April 6, 2014 at 8:18 am

    Statutes at Large, United States Code, Case Law, Regulatory provisions. If you keep these four groups separate and then count each, then total all the counts then you get a grand total. Simple, now pay me.

  22. Ted
    April 6, 2014 at 8:22 am

    “However, a total count of laws passed does not account for the fact that some laws are completely new; some are passed to amend existing laws; and others completely repeal old laws.”

    Amendments to old laws do not make a new law.

    Repeal of a law means that that law is no longer a law.

    New laws means you count them as laws.

    What is the problem here?

  23. scott
    April 22, 2014 at 10:57 pm

    Thanks for your enquiry, you never gave an answer to your own question in the title. Amazing modern stupidity….

  24. bill
    May 15, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    good job

  25. Wut
    May 28, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    So you’re fully admitting here that the people who make these laws don’t even know the half of them.

    Yet we’re all supposed to follow said laws like the little sheep these law makers think we are.

    And people wonder why the USA is failing.

  26. Douglas Renholm
    July 1, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    Now that computers exist with real mice and keyboards and things, I would suggest magically scanning these so called “books o’ law” into a database thingy and use Englishy language recognition and number reading technology to count from 0 to a million. (or more)

    Save the three resurrections for when you really need them. Just my 2p worth of intelligent intellect.

  27. Michael
    September 16, 2014 at 11:19 pm

    Quote: “LAW is a bottomless pit, it . . . devours everything.” That statement appeared in a book published back in 1712.

    Its author decried a legal system in which lawsuits sometimes dragged through the courts for years, bankrupting those seeking justice. In many lands, legal and judicial systems are so complex, so rife with injustice, prejudice, and inconsistencies, that contempt for law has become widespread…

    Is it not odd/wrong that a wealthy individual or corporation through lobbying can acctually make or change laws for their advantage… ‘for the people and by the people? – I would say it more or less run as an oligarchy.

    The President recently stopped the Congress from carryng on ‘ínsider trading’…The executive branch(Congress and the Senate) that made it illigal for the citizens but it was – yes – ‘legal’ for them – It appears the county it not that different than a banana republic.

  28. tyson
    October 10, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    how many laws are there???????????????????
    Too Many!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  29. Anyah
    October 30, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    Thanks I learned a lot.

  30. AKCooper
    November 7, 2014 at 11:07 am

    “The more corrupt the state, the more it legislates.” -Tacitus

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