Words Matter, Part 1 (and The Legislative Process)

A reader recently asked: “What is a ‘statute’ and how is it different from a ‘law?’ Or is it the same thing?

An excellent question. After all, words matter. Words matter a lot. Indeed, punctuation matters too (so says the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit). I’ll leave Oxford commas and the like for another time. For now, let’s talk about some of the words commonly used by lawyers, legislators, judges, law professors, lobbyists, government executives, and others involved in local, state, and federal governance.

Often, people use the terms “statute” and “law” interchangeably. This is not exactly accurate. All statutes are laws, but not all laws are statutes. To really explain this, I have to give a bit of information about how statutes become statutes, which of course involves some additional vocab along the way.

Legislators (Congresspeople) write bills. Bills with any sort of traction are sent to a Committee (such as Ways and Means, Appropriations, Budget, Ethics, Homeland Security, Judiciary, and a whole host of others… check out the complete list of Congressional Committees if you feel curious). If the Committee approves the bill, then the bill is sent to the floor of the chamber of Congress in which the bill was filed, either the House of Representatives or the Senate. (The term “chamber of Congress” is used interchangeably with the term “house of Congress” but I think this gets confusing because, well, one of the chambers is called the House.) If the House or the Senate votes to approve the bill, then the bill is sent to the other chamber for its approval. Usually there is some political maneuvering here, with various drafts of the bill going back and forth between the House and the Senate until each chamber can secure enough votes on the current draft to get approval from both chambers. Once both chambers approve the bill, it goes to the President. If he (perhaps she in the future) signs the bill, it becomes a statute. If POTUS vetoes the bill and does not sign it, then it goes back to Congress for a potential veto override. If each chamber secures enough (more than originally required) votes to override the POTUS veto, then the bill still passes and becomes a statute, even though POTUS vetoed it. If the House and Senate cannot secure enough votes for an override, then the bill fails. (Note, we just covered a lot of opportunities for a bill to pass or fail. It has to pass every step, or achieve a veto override, to become a statute.)

Once a bill becomes a statute, it is published as a slip law, as part of the session laws, and as part of the United States Code. Generally, when people talk about federal statutes, they are referencing the U.S. Code; the language is the same regardless of the source, but it is probably organized differently. A slip law is the specific statute itself, flying solo, and it gets its own number (in sequence, of course). If you’ve ever seen or heard of a reference to “Public Law Number [X],” that’s the slip law version of the statute. Session laws are all of the slip laws for a particular session of Congress compiled into a single source. Slip laws and session laws are published by the Office of the Federal Register.

Slip laws usually make changes to existing statutes, so they read something like this: “Cross out the seventh word in the 42nd line of statute 1234 and replace it with the following text” and “insert, after the words ‘legislating can be so complicated’ the following new section, to be numbered section 15.” The U.S. Code deals with all of those internal references and actually inserts the new legislative language into the right spots in the existing set of statutes. Think of it a bit like editing a really long Word document; the slip laws and session laws show the tracked changes, while the U.S. Code is the clean copy.

So, what was the original question? Oh yeah… what’s a statute and is it different from a law? Now we know the statute is the bill in its final form, passed into law by Congress and/or POTUS. (Note the same process applies in state government as well, except it’s a governor instead of POTUS who gets to sign or veto the bill, and it’s a state legislature instead of Congress doing all the legislating.) The statute is a law. Period.

Really, though, there are other things that qualify as laws, if laws are rules set by government that must be followed by the population at large (or rather the parties to whom the laws apply). Take regulations, for example (often called “regs” for short). Frequently, statutes direct a particular federal agency to promulgate regulations (that’s just a fancy way of saying write and publish the darn regs) to further implement the intent of the statute. I think of regulations as laws too, given the definition I provided at the beginning of this paragraph. (I’m not the only one to define the term “law” this way.) Regulations are published in the Federal Register. We’ll save the regulatory rule-making process for another post.

That seems like enough for now. For more super dry totally interesting vocab, check out the Senate glossary. It is quite comprehensive.


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