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Tip of the Congressional Iceberg

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The following is a guest post by Margaret Wood, Legal Reference Specialist in our Public Services Directorate.

Reading Room Reference Desk

At the start of a new Congress, the librarians at the reference desk in the Law Library of Congress’ Reading Room receive a flurry of questions about Congress, THOMAS, and the legislative process.  So, at the start of the 112th Congress we decided to try to provide a one-stop “shopping place” in response to some of our most frequently asked questions.

A typical question concerns the numbering of a Congress and the length of a Congressional session.  A new Congress is elected every two years in November.  Every member of the House of Representatives is elected, and one-third of the Senators are elected.  Since 1789, Congresses have been numbered consecutively and the Congress which convened on January 5, 2011 is the 112th.  Beginning in January 1934 with the ratification of the 20th Amendment, the convening date for each session of Congress was set for January.  Before 1934, a new Congress began on March 4th of odd numbered years.  Since 1934, each session of a Congress covers a calendar year: the first session of the 107th Congress was held in 2001 and the second in 2002.

Another frequent question concerns the status of a bill from the previous Congress.  Simply put, if a bill from any previous Congress did not become law during the Congress in which it was introduced, it is “dead.”  A “dead” bill would have to be reintroduced in a new Congress, with a new number and begin anew its journey through the legislative process.  You can find more information on this subject in the THOMAS FAQs which can be accessed through THOMAS Help.

We also receive many inquiries about how frequently THOMAS is updated.  The THOMAS FAQs also provide information about how often and how THOMAS is updated.  The bills, reports and the Congressional Record in THOMAS originate in the House and Senate.  These materials are transmitted to the Government Printing Office which prints them and does electronic processing on them before sending them to the Library of Congress.  The Library then does some additional processing before making this material available in THOMAS.  The Congressional Record is processed overnight and is available on THOMAS by 9:00 a.m. the next day.  It usually takes a least a day to process bills, and if a large number of bills is introduced on a particular day, or if the text of a single bill is very lengthy, it may take additional time for a bill to be processed.  The processing time for Congressional committee reports varies depending on when the committee provides it to Government Printing Office.

Another frequent inquiry is about the rules governing procedures in the House of Representatives and the Senate.  Each chamber of Congress sets its own rules.  The power to do this comes from the United States Constitution, Article I, Section 5, Clause 2: “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings …”  Many of the rules governing House and Senate procedures date from earlier Congresses.  The 112th Congress has passed House Resolution 5 which adopts the rules from the 111th Congress subject to the amendments in this resolution.  Because only one third of the Senate membership changes with each new Congress, the Senate is considered a continuing body and its rules continue from one Congress to the next.  The Senate Rules can be found under the “Senate Rules and Administration” committee’s website.

Other patrons want information about linking to information to our website THOMAS from their own websites, or tips on searching THOMAS.  The THOMAS FAQs page provides users with instructions on how to permanently link to search results in THOMAS while the main Help page has information on searching THOMAS.

This information may just cover the tip of the iceberg of your questions about Congress, THOMAS, and the legislative process, but you can submit additional questions through the Library’s digital reference service Ask a Librarian.

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