Frequent Reference Question: How Many Federal Laws Are There?
Updated: Jul 15
March 12, 2013 by Jeanine Cali
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. 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. 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.