Legislation: What is it and how to read it

By: Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan

What is legislation? What is all this?

Legislation is a term that broadly describes a significant part of how laws are made, from the initial bill introduction to the signing into law stage. Most pieces of legislation are known as bills. Bills are introduced in state legislatures and in Congress by individual Representatives or Senators. Bills, when passed usually become the law.

What happens to the bill?

When legislation gets introduced by a Representative or Senator, it gets assigned a number and referred to a legislative committee that depends on the topic of the bill in question. For example, a state bill about Medicaid may get referred to the health committee. In some cases, bills may end up before two committees. Without going into the specifics of how to do lobbying for or against the bill, the committee may decide to hold hearings on it and vote for or against the bill. When the bill doesn’t pass the committee or is never brought to a vote, it dies in committee. Once out of committee it has to pass the floor of either the House or Senate (depending on where it was introduced), and it gets sent to the opposite chamber for passage, where the process happens all over again. If the bill passes both chambers of the legislature, it moves onto the President’s desk (in federal bills) or the Governor’s desk (in state bills). If it is signed by them, it becomes law. If they refuse, they can veto the bill, in which case, it either dies or it can become law by a two thirds vote of the legislature. This latter stage rarely happens unless it was nearly unanimous in the first place.

Okay, how do I read what’s in legislation?

The internet is your friend! Congress (as well as every state legislature) has some sort of website where you can search for bills once introduced, read their text, and see the progress made on the bill so far.

In the case of federal legislation, this website is www.congress.gov. We’ll have a look at more on how to use the website in the companion materials, and I will be attaching a sample federal and a sample state bill as files, so that you can see what it looks like in its full glory.

When you open the bill, you will usually find it starts off being divided by titles or sections and subsections. Sometimes the legislation is very straightforward and brief, and other times it’s in the hundreds or thousands of pages. Do not be afraid to a word search for the topics you’re looking for, or to skim parts that don’t have anything to do with what you want to know about. Very often they start with “findings”, “sense of Congress”, or “exposition of motives”, among other terms that come to describe the reasoning behind the bill. This doesn’t necessarily is the text of the law, so much as the “why we’re doing this.” Then comes the proper text of the bill.

An interesting thing you’ll find is that often times, bills amend existing law. For example, here is a very small sample from the Equality Act (H.R. 5 from 2019):


(a) Prohibition On Discrimination Or Segregation In Public Accommodations.—Section 201 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. 2000a) is amended—

(1) in subsection (a), by inserting “sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity),” before “or national origin”;…

What does this mean? It means it wants to change the text of the existing law (Civil Rights Act of 1964), to add those words in a specific part of it. But how do I find that law? It already gives you all the info you need where it says “42 U.S.C. 2000a”. That means it’s Title 42 of the United States Code, Section 2000a. If we go to the Cornell Legal Information Institute (who keeps an online copy of the U.S. Code), and look that specific spot up, you find the following text:

All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.

Matching those two together, it tells us that what the bill wants to do, is change the civil rights laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity. What do those mean? Well, like I said, legislation often carries a definitions section. In this case that we’re using, it has a definitions section explaining what do those two terms mean for the bill.

“(2) GENDER IDENTITY.—The term ‘gender identity’ means the gender-related identity, appearance, mannerisms, or other gender-related characteristics of an individual, regardless of the individual’s designated sex at birth.

“(3) INCLUDING.—The term ‘including’ means including, but not limited to, consistent with the term’s standard meaning in Federal law.

“(4) SEX.—The term ‘sex’ includes—

“(A) a sex stereotype;

“(B) pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition;

“(C) sexual orientation or gender identity; and

“(D) sex characteristics, including intersex traits.

“(5) SEXUAL ORIENTATION.—The term ‘sexual orientation’ means homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality.

Why is the definitions section important? Well, for example, the “sexual orientation” definition explicitly defines itself as being homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality. One could argue, say, that asexual people, or others who do not identify within those three categories, are not protected by this proposed law. Good or bad, that is an important issue. Many court battles hinge on interpreting what a term in a statute means.

What about state legislation?

State legislation is very similar to federal legislation, except in where its located. Every state legislature has a website that allows you to look up bills introduced and look up the status of them, plus the text of the bill. Some websites are clunkier and less accessible than others, though.

How do I use these resources?

Check out the companion! We’re going to go over this as well as how to access and find legislation.

A note on bias in legislative language:

Generally, lawmakers and other people behind pieces of legislation have personal interests and motivations behind the legislation they’re proposing or trying to enact. But the language itself has to be neutral for legal reasons.

So how do you spot bias? Think really hard about how the language of the bill impacts people beyond its bare text. For example, a law enacting new penalties for a crime may sound lofty, but impact people of color or poor people the most. Or a bill reducing privacy of medical records may make life harder for people in abusive households.

Some terms are easier than most to spot. For example, legislation that talks about “family values” is often code for conservative lawmakers to try to pass anti-LGBTQ legislation. Likewise, restrictions on abortion are often worded as “protecting life”, or “sanctity of life”, rather than as a restriction or other curtailing of liberty.

One thing to keep in mind during disability-themed bills is, “helping families” often has a bias against people with disabilities and in favor of non-disabled people. It may make it easier for family members or guardians to make decisions for the disabled person, or to create guardianship systems and so forth. Watch out for that.