A drafting manual for the US House of Representatives advises that bills “should be written in English for real people.” But even when that advice is heeded, bills still look like a bunch of gobbledygook to the average citizen.

While legislators are often criticized for not reading a bill before voting on it, and while it is Congress’s job to know what’s in a piece of legislation that it’s going to enact as a law, reading legislation is no simple task. And when Congress brings a bill up for a vote mere days or hours after it has been introduced, it’s very uncommon for any other legislator to have read the bill, other than the one who wrote it.

This is where you, the informed citizen, come in. Sometimes a lawmaker may have no idea that a bill is a bad idea until his constituents tell him, and he will be very grateful if you can tell him exactly what is wrong with said bill. If you are lobbying for or against a piece of legislation, you will also be far more effective if you can, again, point out specifically what is in a bill that you either support or object to.

But the reason that most people never read legislation is because, without any guidance, it can be a daunting task. Reading a bill is nothing like breaking out your favorite novel and following the adventurous escapades of the characters. Legislation reading can be dry and often confusing work, and all of us can think of better ways to spend an afternoon.

Here at HSLDA Action, we read and analyze bills so that you don’t have to. But sometimes there may be a bill that’s introduced that doesn’t pertain to policy areas that we work with, or maybe you just want to read a bill for yourself. Sometimes the media may report on a bill, and you want to know if their reporting is accurate or not. If you want to be an informed citizen, being able to read legislation is an extremely useful skill.

Fully comprehending a piece of legislation can require some very technical legal knowledge. But you don’t need that to understand the gist of a bill. So here are some basic tips for the average citizen to read and understand legislation.

Finding Legislation

Step one of reading legislation is finding the actual bill text itself. For federal bills, Congress.gov is the best resource. All introduced bills in various formats can be found there, along with information on their sponsors and where they are in the legislative process. For state bills, most state legislatures post bills on their websites.

Anatomy of a Bill

  • Bill number: The number designates which legislative body introduced the bill. Federal bills will be labeled either H.R. or S., for House of Representatives and Senate. State bills will have the state name and then the legislative house; for example, GA H.B. = Georgia House Bill.
  • Bill title: The title helps readers understand what policy area the bill deals with. This section usually begins “To amend…”
  • Bill summary: After the title, there is sometimes a summary, written as “summary as introduced.” Not all bills have this, but it’s nice when they do; it’s a sentence or two summarizing what the goal of the bill is.
  • Table of Contents: If you are looking for something in particular that you know is in the bill, this can help you find it without having to comb through the entire bill.
  • Definitions: Every legal term must be defined within a piece of legislation, so the beginning of each bill will have a “definitions” section. Knowing a term’s definition can be critically important to the impact of a bill. For example, “non-public school” has a few different definitions at the federal level, so it is important to know which definition a bill is using.
  • Reports: Often, a bill will include a research and/or reports section at the beginning of bill. This includes research that only supports the goals of the bill. Be aware that that does not mean that there isn’t research that undermines what the bill is trying to do.

How To Read and Understand the Bill

Bills don’t read like books. They are a series of amendments to other, already existing bills. So in order to understand them, you have to know what is in the original bill. The new bill will include the code reference to whatever it is amending, so you can either click directly on that reference if it is hyperlinked or type it into a search engine to find it.

Once you have the original bill in front of you, you can compare it to the proposed changes in the new bill. The new bill may be adding a comma or a sentence or striking through a word in the original code. The proposed changes won’t make sense unless you can look at both the original wording and the new bill at the same time.

For example, let’s look at a section of H.R. 842. In Sec. 101(b), the proposed bill reads:

“Section 2(3) of the National Labor Relations Act (29 U.S.C. 152(3)) is amended by adding at the end the following: “An individual performing any service shall be considered an employee (except as provided in the previous sentence) and not an independent contractor, unless—

“(A) the individual is free from control and direction in connection with the performance of the service, both under the contract for the performance of service and in fact;

“(B) the service is performed outside the usual course of the business of the employer; and

“(C) the individual is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession, or business of the same nature as that involved in the service performed.”

You would then look up 29 U.S.C. §152(3). That code currently reads as follows:

“The term "employee" shall include any employee, and shall not be limited to the employees of a particular employer, unless this subchapter explicitly states otherwise, and shall include any individual whose work has ceased as a consequence of, or in connection with, any current labor dispute or because of any unfair labor practice, and who has not obtained any other regular and substantially equivalent employment, but shall not include any individual employed as an agricultural laborer, or in the domestic service of any family or person at his home, or any individual employed by his parent or spouse, or any individual having the status of an independent contractor, or any individual employed as a supervisor, or any individual employed by an employer subject to the Railway Labor Act [45 U.S.C. 151 et seq.], as amended from time to time, or by any other person who is not an employer as herein defined.”

The new bill adds language to the end of this section that, if passed, redefines who qualifies as an employee. The bill doesn’t explicitly say that, but by comparing both the old and new bills, you can see what effect the changes would have on current law.

Other Helpful Information

  • Know the signers: Knowing who cosponsored or signed onto a bill can tell you a lot about the intentions behind it. If you are suspicious about a bill and see that lawmakers whom you don’t usually agree with are supporting the bill, then your suspicions are probably accurate. This is a helpful shortcut, but it doesn’t always work; well-intentioned lawmakers often sign on to bad bills. That’s why it’s important for you to do your own homework.
  • Know when it kicks in: Most bills will have an “enacting clause” near the end that tells you when it goes into effect. Some bills take effect as soon as they are signed by the executive; others may not be enacted for several years.

See, that doesn’t sound so bad, right? The next time you want to tell your congressman not to vote on something, or you want to be able to have an informed argument about a bill, you will be equipped to do so. An informed citizen should know the laws their legislators are enacting without relying on other sources, and now you can!