A bill goes through a number of steps in its journey to the President's desk. This guide will briefly and generally describe the steps that the bill will go through before and after it becomes a law and point out where to find information about the bill at each step of the way. Please note that I have simplified the process to try and easily identify the important documents along the way.
Step #1: The Bill is introduced to Congress and assigned to a committee. This can be found in the Congressional Record.
Step #2: The Committee will refer the bill to a subcommittee who will often bring in people outside of congress to help debate the merits and pitfalls of the bill. Most of the meetings in these subcommittees are called Congressional Hearings.
Step #3: The Bill is sent back to the full committee. The committee will often rewrite the bill and send it to their respective branch of congress, or they may kill the bill. The document created in this process is usually a Congressional Report.
Step #4: The Bill returns to the Senate or the House of Representatives, and it will be debated, amended, and voted on. This information can be found in the Congressional Record.
Step #5: If the Senate and the House each pass a separate version of the bill, a committee will be created to work out the differences between the two before it is sent back to Congress for another vote. The committee that is created in this process produces a Conference Report. Conference Reports can be found in the Congressional Record.
Step #6: The Bill goes to the President who can sign it into a Law. If the President vetoes the law, it will go back to Congress. If each chamber passes with at least 2/3 of the vote, the veto will be overridden. The information from the veto to the revote can be found in the Congressional Record.
After the Bill becomes a law, it will be compiled in the United States Statutes at Large at the end of each session of Congress.
The "general and permanent" laws in the U.S. Statutes will then be included in the U.S. Code. Temporarly laws such as the economic bailouts and local laws are not included in the Code.
As you can see, there are a number of different resources to use along the way, and a number of different places these will be located. I simplified the process somewhat to make understanding where to go to find these as easy as possible. If you have any questions, or can't seem to find what you're looking for, please consult a librarian.
Bill - The best place to find a bill and information about a Bill is in CONGRESS.GOV. CONGRESS.GOV includes legislation from 1973 to the current and gives more information about the Bill than any other online resource. Other resources such as GPO Access and the Federal Digital System have information about Congressional Bills in them, but neither of these resources are as extensive nor as complete as CONGRESS.GOV.
Bills that went through the legislative process prior to 1973 are more difficult to find. Milne Library has the Congressional Quarterly Almanac going back to 1961. This is not as thorough nor as extensive as CONGRESS.GOV, but it does provide some information about the bills. Much of the information about a bill can be found through Congressional Reports, Hearings and the Congressional Record. For more specific information, make sure to see a librarian. Check here, for New York State Bills.
Public Law - Again the best place to use for finding Public Laws is CONGRESS.GOV. This resource has a copy of every public law going back to 1973. Prior to 1973 it can be very difficult to find original copies of Public Law. You're usually better off looking at the United States Statutes (which is a compilation of all of the public laws from a given session in congress) or the United States Code (which will have the most up to date version of the law).
The Congressional Record - Depending on the time frame, the Congressional Record can be found in several different places.
Congressional Hearings - These can be found in a number of places ranging from Catalogs to Databases specific to Government information. Some of the best places to search for congressional hearings include The Catalog of U.S. Government Publications through GPOAccess, and the Federal Digital System. WorldCat Local is also a good place to go, make sure to limit to Government Documents or try typing in hearing in the search box if you want to ensure you're getting Congressional Hearings. Last but not least, most Congressional Committees will have an archive of their Congressional Hearings on their webpage. If you're looking for a specific hearing, and you know which Committee conducted the hearing this can be a good place to check.
Serial Set (Congressional Reports and Documents) - Congressional Reports and Documents are published as part of the Serial Set, and these materials can be found in different places depending on the time frame.
The United States Statutes at Large - The U.S. Statutes can be found in American Memory from 1789 - 1875. The Constitution Society has made the full run of the United States Statutes freely available online.
These are some of the most heavily used resources in the legislative process. If you are looking for Resolutions, Congressional Prints, or any other type of document not listed here, make sure to contact a librarian.
Code of Federal Regulations - The Code of Federal Regulations is available online through GPO Access from 1996 to the current.