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Congressional Help: Public Laws and the Statutes at Large


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About Public Laws and the Statutes at Large

What is a Public Law?

Public Law Congress Public Law Number
P.L. 85 1

Public laws result from the passage of public bills or joint resolutions that affect the general public or classes of citizens. A legislative proposal agreed to in identical form by both Chambers becomes a law if it: receives Presidential approval, is not returned with objections to the House in which it originated within 10 days while Congress is in session, or, in the case of a proposal that has been vetoed by the President, receives a two-thirds vote overriding the veto in each Chamber.


Notes about the numbering of public laws:

  • Prior to the 57th Congress (1901), public laws were identified by assigned Statutes at Large chapter numbers.
  • In 1901, a separate public law numbering system was introduced which assigned public law numbers sequentially, with the sequence beginning anew with each session of Congress. In the 60th Congress (1907), a system of sequential numbering of public laws was adopted which began anew at the beginning of each Congress rather than each congressional session.
  • In the 85th Congress (1957), the chapter numbering was discontinued and the current system was adopted in which public laws are cited with the sequentially assigned public law number prefixed by the Congress in which the law was enacted.


What is a Private Law?

Private Law Congress Private Law Number
Pvt.L. 85 1

Private laws result from the passage of private bills or joint resolutions providing relief or related actions with limited applicability, affecting, for example, a specific individual, a specific corporation or other organization, or a specified locality in a specified circumstance.

For example, private laws may provide relief to individuals in areas such as immigration, taxation, or settlement of claims against the Government involving veteran's benefits or military decorations.

Notes about the numbering of private laws

  • Prior to the 57th Congress (1901), private laws were numbered in a sequential list that included both public and private laws, but since that time they have been numbered in separate sequences.
  • Since the 85th Congress (1957), the private law numbering system has included the sequentially assigned private law number prefixed with the number of the Congress in which the law was enacted (e.g., P.L. 85-1).


What are Statutes at Large?

The United States Statutes at Large (Statutes at Large) is the official compilation of all public and private laws and resolutions passed by Congress, listed in order by date of enactment. Statutes at Large was published by Little, Brown and Co., a private firm, from 1845-1873, and has been published by the GPO since 1874.

  • Currently, new volumes of Statutes at Large are issued approximately a year or so after the end of each Congress. Each bound volume republishes the public and private slip laws enacted during the Congress, as well as concurrent resolutions passed by the Congress, Presidential proclamations, and various lists and indexes.
  • Prior to 1949, all treaties and international agreements approved by the Senate were also included in Statutes at Large.
  • In general, the Statutes at Large law citation contains the volume and page number. Numbering of the Statutes at Large volumes is consecutive, but has no relationship to numbers of Congress.
  • The volumes of Statutes at Large published from 1789 through March 3, 1903, contain no references to bill numbers. Beginning with laws enacted in the 58th Congress (Public, No. 1, Chapter 1, 33 Statutes at Large page 3, of Dec. 17, 1903), the Statutes at Large marginalia cite the relevant bill or resolution number.


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