We thank Margaret Wood, of the Law Library of Congress, for this post, which first published on the In Custodia Legis blog. We appreciate the concise but thorough tour of Congress.gov.
Ten years ago, I wrote a post about some of the questions we typically receive at the start of a new Congress. Though it is still a helpful post (in my opinion at least), we thought it might be useful to update this information, as in 2011, we were using our now-retired legislative system, THOMAS. This post will cover some of the same questions as the first post but will point you to resources and information available through Congress.gov. Congress.gov has a number of features that allow users to track information in a way we could only dream of 10 years ago, as well as more detailed information helpful in understanding the legislative process.
The 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution set the date of January 3rd as the day on which the terms of senators and representatives would begin and end. The amendment also appointed January 3rd of an odd-numbered year as the day on which a new Congress would assemble, “unless by law, they shall appoint another day.” Congress will sometimes pass a law setting another, later day for a new Congress to begin if January 3rd falls on a weekend, but there are no laws preventing a new Congress from assembling on a weekend if they so choose. Thus, the 117th Congress will assemble on Sunday, January 3, 2021.
One of the most frequent questions we receive at the start of a new Congress, concerns the status of legislation from the previous Congress. Bills must be passed in the same Congress in which they are introduced. If a bill is introduced in a Congress and does not become law, then it will expire and it will not be taken up by the next Congress. Congress.gov has a series of videos with transcripts that provide detailed information about the legislative process for users.
The link to the legislative process videos is on the Congress.gov homepage, which is a rich source of information and links. This homepage includes links to the most-viewed bills list, which is updated weekly; the CRS appropriations table report, which goes back to Fiscal Year 1999; and links to video feeds for House and Senate sessions as well as weekly committee meetings, for which you can get regular alerts via email. The bottom of the homepage has links to the members of the current Congress – information users are regularly seeking. You can also access information on members of Congress back to 1973 from the members collection page in Congress.gov. Using retiring Senator Tom Udall as an example, a member’s page provides a list of all the bills they have sponsored and cosponsored during their time in congress. A member’s page in Congress.gov will also include a link to their official website and the member’s remarks, which can be found in the Congressional Record.
Other queries often concern Congress.gov content – what is available, how frequently information is updated, and how far back the various collections (legislation, Congressional Record, members, nominations, communications) go. All these questions can be answered by consulting the information on the Congress.gov coverage date page. For example, Congress.gov now has the text of the Congressional Record back to 1957. And don’t ignore the information in the footnotes! The first footnote on this page details the length of time it takes to receive a bill text from the House or Senate.
One of the major enhancements that Congress.gov provided was the ability for users to receive email alerts about actions taken on bills or actions taken by members. This was a long-requested functionality by our THOMAS users. With Congress.gov, users have been able to set up personal accounts and receive alerts on legislation, nominations, member profiles, updates to the Congressional Record, and saved searches.
Another enhancement has the been the committee data that has been added to the website. As well as including links to congressional committee reports, the main committees page on Congress.gov includes profile pages for standing committees, links to video streams of committee hearings, and information on locating congressional committee hearing transcripts. There is also a committee name history page, which is very helpful if you are looking for information on a committee that no longer seems to exist.
If you have additional questions about Congress.gov, the legislative process, or the passage of a specific bill through Congress, you can always submit a question to us through Ask a Librarian. We also suggest you look at the FAQs for our Ask a Librarian page as many of these provide answers to commonly asked questions about legislation and the legislative process.