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Frequent Reference Question: How Many Federal Laws Are There?

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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.

Two of the shelves holding volumes of the U.S. Statutes at Large in the Law Library of Congress reading room.
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.

Two shelves of containing volumes of the United States Code in the Law Library of Congress reading room.
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.



Comments (67)

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

  2. 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.

  3. Interesting question

  4. 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?

  5. 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?

  6. 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.

  7. 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?(”

  8. Thomas Jefferson didn’t write the Constitution

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

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

  11. God only gave us 10 rules.

  12. God only gave us 10 rules to follow.

  13. God only gave us 10 rules to follow!

  14. 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.

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

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

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

  18. 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,

  19. 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.

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

    I never hear of laws being repealed.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. “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?

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

  25. good job

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. A simple answer would have sufficed.

  29. Hello:

    If there is not even an accurate way to count the laws in existence, how are we supposed to know them well enough to abide by them? By having such a confused system that there is no way for a person to be sure whether or not their actions are legal we are creating a situation where people have no respect for the rule of law and as such, we have a failing society.

    What can be done to simplify the body of federal law so that a person can know what is legal or not without spending their life trying to figure it out?

  30. this prooves ignorance of the law IS an excuse.

  31. Ok i can’t spell.

  32. 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.

  33. in reply to: mike
    February 11, 2014 at 6:08 am
    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.

    Incorrect…there are only just over 600 Mosaic Laws
    Every two years (on average) there are over 600 new US Federal Laws..and all attempts to count/tally the actual number of US Federal Laws have failed…In fact Ronald Gainer (a justice department official) said of such attempts, “you will have died and been resurrected 3 times and still not have an answer to the question.”

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

  35. Thanks I learned a lot.

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

  37. Ironic, because ignorance of the law is no excuse.

  38. If we can’t even count the number of laws we have and ignorance of the law is no excuse, then there is not a single person in this country including all our lawmakers and enforcement that aren’t guilty. SAD! Now push this whole conversation forward 30 more years. Anyone starting to get scared yet? Time for every one of us to pick our heads up out of the sand and start the discussion as to how we fix this. The government is’nt going to do it on there own. They like thing the way they are. As stated above they are not bound by many of the laws they write anyway.

  39. I don’t care how hard you try, YOU CANT CREATE ENOUGH LAWS TO REGULATE STUPID!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  40. Dave, as the laws are added, other laws will become obsolete. Laws about what you can say on radio shows, for example, are useless with modern Internet podcasts. In the future, aviation laws will be replaced with space travel laws, and so on. There will forever be a stable number of laws with a purpose in the country.

  41. Correction, God gave us TWO laws.

    Love the lord thy God with all thy heart mind and soul, and
    to love thy neighbor as thyself.

  42. “I’m sorry, Scott, Douglas, and others. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

  43. This is true but will the laws be over ruled by the new ones?

  44. We have laws that make no sense and should be repealed or thrown out. Reviewing these laws need to be done by a competent organization WITHIN the government no outside faction, there are enough people in Wash.DC to do this. If laws need to be revamped then delete them and start over period.

  45. Are these volumes not digitized? It seems like a decent programmer could come up with an algorithm to not only count the laws, but also account for overlapping and superseded laws.

  46. how many federal laws are there that are active on the books effective 7/2/2015??

  47. You know the state of a country is in a bad position when its government acknowledges they don’t know the total number of laws it says it has the authority to impose.

    …”trying to tally this number is nearly impossible”.

    So, We The People should stick to what we know, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and anything that attempts to subvert those articulated rights should be ignored, and fought against when necessary.

    If a person can a make a living legislating, that country is in need of resetting its law code back to the 10 Commandments.

    K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid)

  48. the more corrupt the state,the more numerous the laws….tacitus

  49. There are 92,000 federal laws; 40,000 laws in each state; 2,000 municipal cods in each City;

  50. Law which cannot be accounted for, cannot be rationally observed. This is obvious even to the extent that two diametrically opposed laws could be present, and serve to effect two seperate conviction, yet declared effective for the admistration of justice.

  51. Hunting for artifacts: England allows people to hunt and the government pays you the value of the find, u s a doesn’t let you hunt on govt. land.
    Montgomery Co.,MD, has a history of creating a law prohibiting recreation when complaints are filed, go-carting, basketball, listening to books on tape in a vehicle w/ ear buds, are just a few.
    What ever happened to laws for the good of the majority, instead of taking freedoms because a few abuse a given circumstance! Recreation for example: Many people are resigned, paying to manipulate a machine; and that’s fun? We’re not in shape, yet TV is safe, if one leaves the indoors, one will probably break a law!

  52. Where can I go online to read some of the Federal laws?

  53. Why isn’t it the responsibility of Congress to repeal any and all laws no longer relevant? Wouldn’t that make government a lot more functional?

  54. I can understand why some people comment:

    “…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…”


    Would you feel the same way if it was your loved one that was assaulted, robbed, burgled, raped or murdered?

    What is the RIGHT AMOUNT of time for these heinous offenses against others?

    Is 10 years a proper amount of time for murder?

    How about the person apologize sincerely and we let them have probation?

    I have seen people arrested for a crime spree that included 2 murders and several robberies in one night.
    And they were tried for the highest felony ONLY!!!
    After the trial, he was sentenced to 60 years. After serving 20, he was released because he earned 3 days credit for every one day he served.

    Was that sufficient?
    What do you believe the family members of the victims believe it was sufficient?
    They lost their loved ones FOREVER. Which is way more than 20 years.

    Our laws and regulations are specious and ridiculous at times. And insufficient at other times.

    But I wouldn’t change this country’s principles for anything. With the total number of laws, statutes and ordinances exceeding 100,000; who would leave because they feel they’re too restricted and have no freedom?

    There are people literally dying to get into this country. I wonder why.

    Keep up the conversations. They are what make this country great.

  55. They need to start with law #1 and ask, ls this relevant anymore and start getting rid of laws that don’t matter anymore. There are 1000s of laws that haven’t been in use for many years because they don’t apply anymore. Nobody parks their horse on main street anymore so we don’t need laws for that, their just clogging the system. If they just go through and take out the laws that don’t pertain anymore it would probably cut the amount of laws in half.

  56. Amazing….to think most people can’t handle ten commandments…

  57. This is a perfect job for Watson, the super computer. Watson could “read” all the federal laws and then through AI answer if any action is legal or illegal.

  58. I just want a number of how many federal laws therebare

  59. I thought my query was simple. I’m surprised with our level of technology That the question can’t be answered. The next time I hear that “People are basically good”, argument. Then why are there so many laws to govern behavior?

  60. This is a knowledgeable discussion.

  61. All these letters are not up to date so here goes. Let congress record every law starting Jan. 1st of 2018 just to see how many laws are passed this year. even the ones that repeal other laws as we must know these laws are not in effect.

  62. This is a very interesting question, but it brings up many more. For example, It’s illegal to fish for whales on Sunday in Ohio. It’s also illegal to get fish drunk. Why are these laws? No one knows! You can’t even find wild whales in Ohio, much less fish for one.

  63. In a country where there are so many laws that no one knows the extent of them all, is it actually possible for any one randomly selected individual to be innocent of committing some kind of crime within the scope of their lifetime? If we were to place all of the so-called “Good Politicians” (no jokes please) up against all of these laws, would any of them be found to be totally law abiding? This issue is just as it’s discussed on a Federal Level… what about the State Levels?

    It may be a daunting task to go through even just the State Level to pull outdated and stupid laws from the books, but it MUST be done at some point or it will NEVER get any better. The way it is, even our own police cannot possibly be able to avoid breaking the law in one way or another.

    Lord forbid I be arrested for spitting on a sidewalk while wearing my 1.1 inch spurs downtown on a Sunday in front of a Church where I just hitched up my horse! I’d have 4 charges against me, and be subject to 3 months in jail!

  64. It boggles my mind to think that we have so many laws that they can’t be counted when we only need 11.
    The 10 commandments, obviously.
    And the “Golden Rule” as it was taught to me in first grade. Do they still teach children that? Or has it been banned from public school with the ten commandments?
    For those that don’t know the Golden Rule, it’s NOT, those with the gold make the rules.
    It is simply,

    Treat others the way that you would like to be treated.

    Pretty simple isn’t it? With that we wouldn’t need other laws, cops, jails, prisons, courts, lawyers, or politicians. Wouldn’t that be nice?

  65. How many laws have been repealed since our U.S. Congress was formed? And what were these laws? Thank you in advance.

  66. The Old Testament contains 613 laws divided into three categories : judicial laws, moral laws and ceremonial laws; Not just Ten Commandments! Tough in light of the fact we cannot keep our own New Years resolutions 😉😵‍💫 Under our current legal system, which three would be the easiest to break out of ignorance?

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